The Two Best Albums of 1993

The passage of time has a way of providing focus and clarity, of allowing us the ability to judge in a wider and more accurate context and better measure the lasting effects and influences of an artistic work. With that in mind, it’s time to take a look back at the two best albums from a decade ago — two albums that may not have topped the charts or generated the most buzz upon their release, but hold up as enduring, strong statements 10 years later. 1993 was near the tail end of the Great Alternative Signing Spree of the early to mid-1990s, when any band considered remotely marketable was signed by the major or mid-major labels in hopes of landing either the Next Big Thing or at least a left field hit. Although the American Music Club and the Afghan Whigs were both placed under the “alternative” classification at record stores and on radio playlists, neither had much in common with the prevailing tide of the hordes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam knockoffs.

The AMC had a bleak, depressive sound, but eschewed the distorted wall of guitar noise in favor of stark, dry sonic landscapes flavored by the lonesome wail of multi-instrumentalist Vudi’s guitar. And the Whigs? Greg Dulli couldn’t have been any more different from the slouched, self-deprecating and self-loathing frontmen popular at the time. A strutting, posturing personification of the alpha male, Dulli was an undeniable presence whether you found him compelling or ridiculously over the top. Unsurprisingly, neither band struck it big. Although the Whigs had a minor radio hit with “Gentlemen,” both bands remained in college radio cult favorite semi-obscurity without a breakthrough into a wider audience.

While the American Music Club had released several excellent albums before 1993 (most notably 1988’s California and 1991’s Everclear), Mercury is the high-water mark of Mark Eitzel’s songwriting career. Eitzel’s obsession with the losers and the forgotten in society is in full bloom here — all of the songs on Mercury concern lost individuals standing by helplessly while life passes by without them. But Eitzel avoids the trap of romanticizing the plight of his protagonists and lapsing into the sentimentality of the “beautiful loser”: his subjects loathe everything about their predicament, particularly the fact that there appears to be no way out.

Mercury leads off with “Gratitude Walks,” immediately setting the tone for the album. A slow, measured waltz with an elegiac feel, Eitzel sings with the mixture of exhaustion and pain emblematic of a character who has lost all hope, but can’t make the pain and disillusionment go away. “If I Had a Hammer” briefly soars over the emotional desert with its soaring chorus of “maybe I’m almost there,” allowing a brief dose of hope, but reality quickly intrudes (“but somewhere along the line/I passed the point of no return”). In Eitzel’s world, any escape is fleeting and transient.

The emotional center of Mercury is “I’ve Been a Mess,” a gut-wrenching performance that stands as the greatest breakup song of all time. Eitzel sings the simple one line chorus — “I’ve been a mess since you’ve been gone” — with a mixture of bitterness, agony and pure defeat that is almost painful to hear. The slow, lugubrious pace of the song builds to Eitzel’s final plea in the coda:

Your beauty is just a slap in the face
that’s gonna bring me back to life
back to another sky that’s blue
it’s gonna turn me into another great American zombie
so hungry for you

It’s a gut-wrenching, undeniably moving performance that’s as emotionally bare as singing gets.

Mercury’s single was “Johnny Mathis’ Feet,” a brilliant meditation on the nature of performance and celebrity. Eitzel imagines a meeting with the legendary crooner, who bemusedly shakes his head at Eitzel’s naked emotionalism and advises him to “learn how to disappear in the silk and amphetamine,” adding that “a real showman knows how to disappear in the spotlight.” It’s a wry comment on the American Music Club’s existence outside of the musical mainstream, but it also serves as a statement of purpose — for better or worse, Eitzel is tied to his fate as the chronicler of the dispossessed.

In Mercury’s final song, “Will You Find Me?” Eitzel yearns for escape (“on the highways there’s a million ways if you wanna disappear/should you take a left or a right, well I’m sure I don’t care/all I want out of life is to hide somewhere”), yet the yearning for acceptance and belonging still remains. As in all of Eitzel’s songs, no easy answers or happy endings are in sight, just the confusion and determination of people trying to make it through the worst of circumstances with some measure of dignity and sanity intact.

Gentlemen is one of the great concept albums — capturing, in agonizing detail, the cycle of abuse, violence and codependency in a doomed relationship. Addiction — physical, emotional, psychological — is at the heart of the album’s conflicts. Dulli staked his claim here as the Al Pacino of rock music — an inveterate scene-chewer who nevertheless managed to put forward powerful performances of emotional depth. But despite all of the attention Dulli attracted during the Whigs’ heyday, Gentlemen is the work of a great, cohesive band at the height of its powers. Rick McCollum’s jabbing rhythm guitar and jagged soloing provided the power, while the underrated rhythm section of John Curley and Steve Earle built a solid foundation equally capable of a surprisingly supple groove as well as straight-ahead rock drive.

Gentlemen’s first half consists of dark but up-tempo rockers, building to a gradual and inevitable meltdown. Despite the turmoil explicit in the lyrics, Dulli is still in control, throwing off cocky one-liners while the band backs him with measured intensity. “Gentlemen” and “Debonair,” carried along by McCollum’s post-punk meets funk guitar riffing and Dulli’s swaggering delivery, set the stage. “Be Sweet” uses the standard alternative rock practice of soft-verse/loud-chorus, but the band rises above cliché thanks to a lacerating McCollum guitar solo. But the facade quickly breaks down: “When We Two Parted” is a slow crawl, with Dulli singing with a stalker’s intensity, finally exploding into full burn at the song’s finale.

The Whigs build to a stirring climax with “What Jail is Like,” the penultimate howl of rage that brings the album to a full boil. Over a rolling piano figure on the verses, Dulli warns “if cornered/I’ll scratch my way out of the pen,” leading to the crashing guitar and thundering drumroll of the chorus as Dulli screams “and it goes down every night/this must be what jail is really like.” It’s a riveting performance, evoking the entrapment of need and desire musically as well as lyrically.

Just when the hothouse atmosphere of Gentlemen threatens to suffocate the listener, the Whigs bring in Scrawl’s Marcy Mays to take lead vocals on “My Curse,” the one song on the album told from the woman’s point of view. Mays almost steals the show from Dulli — her exhausted, drained voice captures the morning-after damage left in Dulli’s wake perfectly, contrasting beautifully with the subtle sway of the muted acoustic shuffle of the song.

After Mays’ performance, Gentlemen closes on a subdued note with “Now You Know,” a cover of the Tyrone Davis soul gem “I Keep Coming Back,” and the final instrumental “Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer.” On “I Keep Coming Back,” Dulli’s rage has dulled, replaced with a weary resignation that the force of attraction is beyond his control. And the muted, ominous “Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer” signals the calm before the storm, the lull before the cycle inevitably starts over again. The Whigs offer no resolution or redemption — the characters are trapped by their own behavior and desires, unable to stop the forward motion of their eternal conflict.

All pop culture trends tend to explode the same way — a small wave of groundbreaking, innovative work, followed by a tsunami of derivative coattail-riding until the public finally tires and moves on to the new latest thing. The rise of commercial alternative rock was no different. Ten years later, much of what was swept up in the Alternative Nation and 120 Minutes maelstrom now sounds derivative, trite and dated. But these two dissimilar yet deeply rewarding albums still resonate as essential works that cut to the bone and accurately capture a part of the human experience.