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The Sound of Things Falling Apart: Big Star – Third/Sister Lovers

March 24, 2011

Big Star’s third and final record in its 70’s incarnation, alternately titled Third (appropriate enough, if not very creative) orSister Lovers (somewhat risque and wholly inappropriate for the material at hand), is a harrowing document of a band in rapid descent.

Big Star had dimmed considerably by the time they took to Ardent Studios to record a follow-up to the excellent Radio City. Due to conflicts within the group, lackluster sales, and personal tribulations, things were no longer gelling as they famously did for their first two records. The songs don’t just hint at this discord, they scream it loud and clear. It’s quickly obvious why this album wasn’t finished, released years later as a compilation of the fraught sessions.

The thin, wobbly tremolo guitar in lead-off track “Kizza Me” signals this rickety, precarious state of affairs. The lyrics of the first track set a tone that the album doesn’t stray much from throughout: “Dreams and wishes/Like shooting stars…I want to white out.” Like much of the rest of the record, “Kizza Me” sounds strained, unfocused and incomplete, as if the band was too distraught and too distracted to put differences aside and concentrate on putting down cohesive, coherent material.

“Thank You Friends” comes across as a sarcastic kiss-off, rather than an expression of genuine gratitude. All the elements of a classic Big Star song are there, but the lyrics indicate a cool distance (“All the ladies and gentlemen who made this all so probable”), and the vocal effects that appear at the end of the track put the lie to any notions of heartfelt sincerity–were the singers supposed to sound like bleating robotic sheep? Is this a comment on the band’s–or Alex Chilton’s–perception of a fickle audience?

The disillusionment turns inward on “Big Black Car,” with the lines “Why should I care/ It ain’t gonna last” revealing growing disappointment and anger. The “s” in last is drawn out, sounding much like air being let out of a tire. This, like many of the down-tempo songs on Third, is a clear departure from the confident, ambitious power pop of #1 Record.

Faint echoes of Big Star’s greatness occasionally break through. “O, Dana” has a shabby beauty to it, but the orchestration seems wasted on what amounts to a work-tape sketch. The best song on the album, “Holocaust,” is the most affecting. When Chilton sings “You’re a wasted face/ You’re a sad-eyed lie/ You’re a holocaust,” he’s addressing everyone who’s let him down: his band, the industry, and himself. Overall, it’s the most purposeful and coherent thing on offer; even if it’s a colossal downer, at least it’s a fully formed one.

So much of the music on Third/Sister Lovers sounds like a shambling soundtrack to inevitable defeat. Perhaps the worst part is that the band seems resigned to it, as if nothing could be done. Chilton in particular sounds like he knew where this project was headed and decided to go down in flames. His songwriting is uncharacteristically disorganized, his singing flat, his ideas frequently half-baked or less.

Whether he was merely going through the motions or actively trying to undermine the proceedings proves unclear. What is clear is that he’s at turns angry, sad, and dejected, and, rather than fashioning something to help him and his band-mates soldier through it on to better days, he’s lashing out, pissing away his time–and ours–in a grand piss-off gesture. What a disappointing end.

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