Bush’s ‘Sixteen Stone,’ 20 Years Later
By the end of 1994, the grunge era was over. Kurt Cobain died in April of that year. Soundgarden's 'Superknown' and its earworm single, 'Black Hole Sun,' broke the band into the mainstream. Pearl Jam underwent personnel changes and changed musical direction on 'Vitalogy.'
It was time for post-grunge.
This is how it goes with musical trends. A local scene catches fire and eventually goes national. By the time it does, the original members of said scene are ready to move on, just as the world is catching up to them. London in the '60s, the Philly sound in the '70s, Athens in the '80s, Seattle in the '90s -- I'm guessing 20,000 years ago someone uttered "Thog tired play tree stump. Thog explore new direction," just as the tribe was catching onto 4/4 time.
One can be cynical about the post-Thog era, of course, tossing out a "Me like tree stump when Thog play, poseur." That's short-sighted, though. A lot of great music came out of the post-Thog era, and so it goes with Bush's debut album, 'Sixteen Stone,' released Dec. 6, 1994.
The band formed only two years earlier, naming themselves after the Shepherd's Bush district of London. Initially signed to Hollywood Records, the Disney-owned label passed on 'Sixteen Stone.' Interscope (via subsidiary Trauma Records) thought differently, and rescued one of the biggest selling albums of the '90s from a trip to the scrap heap.
Album opener 'Everything Zen' was picked up by L.A.'s legendary KROQ and quickly found its way into their power rotation. Band founders Gavin Rossdale and Nigel Pulsford both admired the Pixies, whose trademark loud/soft dynamic is put to good use here:
The pro-Thog camp jumped on Rossdale for sounding too much like Nirvana, but with a little critical distance one can see that the Bush frontman had his own style. Rossdale's vocals are cleaner, more polished than Cobain's.
"Polish" may be what separates post-grunge from its predecessor. Even within the grunge canon, albums like Pearl Jam's 'Ten' were eyed with suspicion due to their high production values. "Too corporate" was not the kind of gum a serious band wanted stuck to its Doc Martens.
Bush managed to keep a Doc in each camp for their mega-hit 'Glycerine,' though, which sounds like a dude jamming in your living room -- provided you keep a string quartet and an arranger behind the couch (and who doesn't?):
The album title comes from a real life experience. Sixteen stone translates to 224 pounds, allegedly the weight of a young woman who catfished one of Rossdale's friends via a personal ad. I'm not suggesting that the album's other big hit, 'Comedown,' intentionally echoes that same theme, but it does nevertheless:
Bush committed another error nearly as grievous as "polish": Their frontman was attractive. In a 2001 interview with Rolling Stone, Rossdale reflected on how his appearance affected the band's credibility:
I think initially they didn't give the band any credence because it was reported that I looked good. Every band was like that. I thought the Clash and the Sex Pistols look amazing. I thought Bob Marley was a beautiful man, you know what I mean? I thought that was an accepted part of music, I thought that was OK. For me, I got really in trouble for it and it was such a weird, weak thing to attack me about. It's patently nothing to do with me, is it? You're born how you look. Well most of the time.
Rolling Stone wasn't particularly nice to the band initially, calling them "Nirvanawannabies." They changed their tune years later, though, listing 'Sixteen Stone' as one of the 40 best albums of 1994. Dusting off 'Machinehead' for a fresh listen, it's hard to argue with that assessment:
Bush is still kicking; in fact, they're still filling arenas, though Rossdale and drummer Robin Goodridge are the sole original members left. In October 2014, the new lineup released the album 'Man On the Run.' Lead single 'The Only Way Out' has racked up respectable YouTube views and the album enjoys mostly positive reviews, but their six million selling debut remains their true legacy.
Original vinyl copies in mint condition can fetch some big bucks, but good news: By the time you read this, a 180-gram, 20th anniversary edition of 'Sixteen Stone' will be available. My recommendation? Polish up your Docs, drop the needle, and crank it, Thog-style.