WORKING AT A NIGHTCLUB, one tends to ignore the music on the PA system. So it's always memorable when a song makes its presence known, as when I first encountered Semisonic while working a Tuesday-night shift at First Avenue. The song was "Fascinating New Thing," from the group's debut, Great Divide. The track's by-the-book power pop--a brand-new crush declared over ingratiating guitar riff, bouncing melody, and geek-boy harmonies--transcended its workmanlike status with genuine enthusiasm. Though the lyrics were obviously fairly adolescent ("I'm surprised that you haven't been told before/That you're lovely and you're perfect/And that somebody wants you"), frontman Dan Wilson sang them with a galvanizing urgency. Or, as the DJ told me after I asked who it was, "Who would have thought someone from Trip Shakespeare could actually rock?"
Five years later it's less than surprising, if nonetheless disappointing, to find that the same group has actually made an entire album that slogs along at midtempo. Nearly everything about the new All About Chemistry (MCA) feels as if the energy has been sapped from it. Say what you will about "Closing Time," the group's 1998 modern-rock monster that most of the new album is shamelessly modeled on, but at least Wilson sounded enthusiastic--and why not? He was about to leave the bar with a woman he'd been eyeballing all night. On most of Chemistry, by contrast, the music seeps out of the speakers like a forgotten B-side playing on a jukebox, and Wilson sounds like he'll be cabbing it home alone tonight.
Or does he? Heavy rotation can make a song do things it wouldn't normally do--check back with me when "Chemistry," the lead single, reaches gyroscopic rotation, and I'll tell you whether Wilson's vocal still sounds as weary as I think it does now. Maybe that tonal ennui is appropriate, since the song is something of a fable for aging frat boys in lust: "We conducted experiments/In an apartment by the River Road/We found out that the two things we put together/Had a bad tendency to explode."
That said, I doubt radio saturation will redeem "One True Love." This song, on which Carole King (!) helps Wilson baldly rewrite his biggest hit, is set at a party rather than a bar, where our narrator moons familiarly about wishing to leave at the end of the evening with, uh, "one true love." As a recapitulation of an earlier glory, Semisonic's effort here is less on the order of the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself" lifting from "It's the Same Old Song," than like Tag Team rewriting "Whoomp! There It Is" for the Addams Family Values soundtrack as "Addams Family Whoomp!"
If anything, though, Semisonic's lyrics have regressed from Great Divide's earnest buoyancy to a stale view of relationships. "Act Naturally," about putting on a brave public face during the dissolution of a romance, finds Wilson imploring, "Just be you, beautiful" over a generic alt-rock quiet storm, as if the woman were a prop. On "Surprise," he unconvincingly warns in his most adenoidal voice, "Someday I'm gonna be back for you/And then you'd better not refuse me again." Worst of all may be "Bed," on which he threatens, "I'll find someone else to bed," which sounds like the death rattle of the world's emptiest relationship. Once found, this new partner will doubtless indulge Wilson's fantasies of "Sunshine and Chocolate," which he wishes to spread "all over you."
The happiest Wilson gets is when declaring, on "Get a Grip," that "I've got a grip on myself and it feels nice." Given how sour Wilson's new persona seems to be, he probably doesn't have much choice.