Cosmic Thing

The B-52’s

1989: Reprise 9 25854-2

  1. Cosmic Thing
  2. Dry County
  3. Deadbeat Club
  4. Love Shack
  5. Junebug
  6. Roam
  7. Bushfire
  8. Channel Z
  9. Topaz
  10. Follow Your Bliss

And then they got it all back in gear and produced this fantastic album which made me fall in love with their sounds all over again. From the opening salvo of “Cosmic Thing,” which tells you right off the bat to get off your ass and start dancing, this album just doesn’t let up very often. Even the moody tracks rock. This album was one of several brilliant ones that seared memories of 1989 into my brain forever. Great year for music, that was.

That’s my short commentary on this album, and obviously it assumes that one knows a little about the B-52’s and the history of their musical output—in particular, how after five albums guitarist/songwriter/cofounder Ricky Wilson (brother to singer Cindy Wilson) suddenly died and left the band in a devastated limbo of doubt and grief as they first struggled to even promote Bouncing off the Satellites which they’d just finished making. That they produced anything, after that, would have been surprising and possibly a cause for worry as to its quality or tone…but that what emerged, three years later, was THIS…well, it was nearly a phoenix scenario. I think only Tina Turner has done it more magnificently, in my lifetime anyway.

The title track first appeared in the soundtrack to the Julie Brown flick Earth Girls Are Easy with the title “Shake That Cosmic Thing,” so, considering movie-production schedules and contracts/deals, I assume it was in the works before the Bs’ own album was finished…but who can say? In any case, it was and still is an awesome slice of bouncy, wig-tossing, bodacious fun, complete with lyrics that are both silly and hint at political activism (“rock the house!” being, in this case, pointedly part of a subtle campaign of the day to get young people to participate in the electoral and voting process to effect social progress and shake off the shitty, repressive old-white-male-Republican-dominated political scene). I love that they additionally referenced the US-governmental process’s “pocket veto” quirk with the line “don’t let it rest on the President’s desk; rock the House!”—thus not only slickly turning it into a fun, booty-shaking imperative but also nudging the likely dormant understanding of such processes in the minds of the audience who might remember just a hint of the dry facts of such stuff being taught to them in school.

That they hit us with that track right off the bat I still consider a brilliant and stunningly effective wallop. That they immediately follow it up with “Dry County” suggests to me that they had an incredibly auspicious alignment of stars or whatever working in their favor, because Cosmic Thing (the album) right away thus demonstrates that they’re not just trotting out stuff from an arsenal of unused Rock-Lobster-era also-rans or throwaway stuff that didn’t make the cut on the more synth-oriented albums. Instead, they go right to their origins and whack us in the face with a too-hot day in the South, only leavened by a sauntering rhythm that’s just a kick or two more lively than that of fanning oneself resignedly. In fact, it’s downright funky, but with lovely new touches of sampled sounds being introduced to the Bs’s sound rather gorgeously throughout. And those lyrics…oh, honey…“when the blues whomp you up on the side of the head, throw ’em to the floor and kick ’em out the door; when the blues kick you in the head, and you roll out of bed in the morning, just sit on the porch and swing…sit on the porch and swing….” So, so evocatively sublime and yet incredibly expressive at the same time, when those lyrics are delivered as they are by the melodic line’s development and especially Kate and Cindy’s voices leading into the second half, the heat of the day tipping things toward the resignation side of the scenario. To me, this is an intriguing cousin of their even more mesmerizing tribute to such atmospheres, Wild Planet’s “Dirty Back Road.”

They continue with the Athens-GA “our roots” theme with “Deadbeat Club,” which personally I don’t much care for on its own. Specifically I find it’s a little too passive-voice in its tone, if not in its wording, and it’s all strictly nostalgic, looking back at what was. This is somewhat mitigated by its video, in which the remaining four band members recreate the mood in a quasi-contemporary scenario (contemporary to the late 1980s, that is), with the spirit of the evoked time translated visually into an adjecent-but-not-identical context of presumably such fun times. (Some of it looks forced or otherwise artificial, but then there are parts that just capture moments happening between people who are having fun, dancing around, falling off couches, laughing, etc.—and that’s really the point, after all.)

“Love Shack” follows that. I can’t say anything more in enthusiastic appreciation of it than has already been said. It’s just a perfect B-52’s song and track. “Junebug,” which closes out Side 1 of the original LP, also wraps up the “looking-back” part of the album, as I have heard the band members note in interviews since it came out, and, well, “Junebug” is just pretty silly and maybe best enjoyed by those who live in and/or enjoy the South and its environments. Personally, all I get out of it besides general amusement and entertainment is the interesting observation that the letter G as sung by Kate and Cindy in closing refrains of “Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go, Junebug!” matches almost exactly the initiating sound of Keith Strickland’s guitar chords matching it in counterpart. Hey, I’m a geek about such things; deal with it.

So much for Side 1, which is just beautiful and, on the whole, energizing. Side 2 takes us off onto a journey, and while it’s an envigorating and enticing journey, for the most part, it sure leaves us with a semicolon or points of ellipsis (or perhaps ellipses, come to think of it) rather than a period, at the end, and only a Zen-like sense of closure (albeit an effective and welcome one, by the end).

Things kick off with the truly lovely “Roam,” which for me personally came at a time (the album’s release, in mid-1989) when I really was setting out on an adventure, albeit not so grandly realized as their lyrics would exhort one to. “Roam” was cowritten by Robert Waldrop—whom I personally am intrigued by, as he has contributed to some of the band’s most engaging and fascinating songs over many years. Its ending takes the best of the song’s groove and spins it into (can I use such an expression?) a profound dance riff, and it does so so effectively, in large part, because of the special note provided only by the combined voices of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson in their simple-yet-nonobvious harmony arrangements. Great, great stuff.

I tend to think of “Bushfire” as being at least a double-entendre song (and perhaps that’s reinforced by the band remarking of 2008’s Funplex that most of the songs are about sex, “of course”). Perhaps it is; perhaps it isn’t. Anyway, it’s kind of fun on the surface but—to me—delivers a double or triple load of impressions and messages, ranging from cinematic landscapes to a sense of personal-transformation catalytic moments to tribal-community ritual. I never thought I’t think of “Bushfire” as being profound, but the band does seem to have underlain it with musical and lyrical planes that only shine faintly through to the surface here and there, all of this with a dancey beat that belies the dark corners the chord progressions take on their way. It’s really a fascinating track, actually.

“Channel Z” came out as the album’s first single, and it’s a hit-or-miss affair, very much a product of its sociopolitical day. I remember that time well, so my impressions of the song are personal and not particularly generous: it was, to me, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” or at least in desperate, angry protest, against materialist/tech-driven/Reaganite policies and business objectives that were so irresponsibly destroying the planet’s ecosystem as well as eroding many aspects of what makes life good for humans on a social or ethical level. Yeah, I know, that’s a hell of a load; this song laid it on with a trowel, judgmentally, but tried to keep things somewhat light with a strong-yet-kicky rock/pop beat. To me, it didn’t quite succeed, because the railing against the Bad overwhelmed any lighter aspects, and the musical note throughout was pretty dark. Thankfully it wasn’t as bad as Joni Mitchell’s “Ethiopia” (on her 1986 album Dog Eat Dog), and they even produced a video for it in hopes of stirring political activism or at least participation among the youth of the day, but “Channel Z” still leaves me feeling slightly embarrassed, as though I were a choir member hearing a soloist sing too stridently.

The album then wraps up with the quasi-sublime “Topaz,” which is perhaps meant as a salve or palliative after the ranting of “Channel Z” but means nothing in itself, being all “airy-fairy” (a twin, of sorts, to “She Brakes for Rainbows,” on Bouncing off the Satellites)—nice but hardly necessary—and then finally the instrumental (plus minimal “ah” vocalizations) “Follow Your Bliss” which, given the year of its release, could hardly be mistaken for anything other than a reference to Joseph Campbell’s admonition, itself receiving popular exposure just then because of Campbell’s “The Power of Myth” collaboration with Bill Moyers.

For many years, I had assumed that it was Sara Lee playing the melody line on “Follow Your Bliss,” but actually it was Keith Strickland, evidently playing on a guitar’s deepest strings to maximum bass (and twang) effect. Whoever was responsible for whichever element, I’m grateful: “Follow Your Bliss” gives us an unexpected 4-minute period of reflection and transcendence after all that journeying and nostalgia and dancing.

It’s not merely an album; it’s an experience, and it’s one I had no idea the B-52’s had in them to provide us.

A final note: I wish people could see LP cover art at its original size, these days, because this album’s front cover simply doesn’t pack much punch when reduced to a 5-inch context, compared to the original, and the back-cover and inner-sleeve photos are never seen at all. On the LP’s front cover, the band’s now-four members are presented as an ensemble but one in which each member is looking a different direction at the moment the photo was taken, and (as is shown on the inner-sleeve photo) all are performing in a pretty dismal context, slapped up against each other on a dinky stage with just one half-curtain to one side, a landscape-photo backdrop behind them, a string of plastic tiki lights dangling pathetically-and-incongruously just above their heads, and, on top of all that, Kate is the only one wearing an obvious wig, and it (in conjunction with her glittery ’60s minidress) makes her look quite like a knockoff Barbie doll that someone’s played with a few times too many—which is a really effective look, in a good way, on the final cover art, but which is pretty dodgy when seen in its pre-processing form. The sleeve notes credit “Cristoph Lanzenberg” as “Cinematographer,” and presumably that’s in reference to the back cover’s strips of film stills, but I have yet to find any online record of what the video taken during this photo shoot actually ended up being; or perhaps it was a later-aborted video which happened to yield some usable photos (such as the cover, credited to Virginia Liberatore).

Oh, wait—I forgot to note a personal perspective about this album. This baby is deeply imprinted in my mind as part of 1989 because that was the year I first traveled abroad and briefly lived in Paris; the album came out just before my trip, and I included some tracks from it on mix tapes I traveled with (and, I think, a copy of the full album), so the stamping of impressions is pretty solidly linked. But after I returned to the States this album worked mighty juju on me (and still does, when I take in more than its superficial treats), and the inherent tristesse of the album’s less-upbeat tracks has haunted me ever since in the best of nostalgic ways but which are reminders now of hard times of a different era’s sort.