Make Good Choices
If you count yourself among the fans of the departed but not forgotten rock outfit Harvey Danger, you have to wonder what took that band's frontman Sean Nelson so long. Surely a mind as capable of startling turns of lyrical phrase and a singing voice so assured and emotional couldn't keep quiet forever. That is, perhaps, overstating things. Nelson hasn't locked himself away from the world; he has kept himself in the public eye via acting gigs, journalism work and film criticism. He also takes time to perform around his hometown of Seattle, backing up friends or performing the work of his favorite songwriters. Amid all that activity, Nelson was also quietly putting together Make Good Choices, with scattered studio sessions that tapped on the resources of his famous musical friends (R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Death Cab For Cutie's Chris Walla and members of Centro-matic all make appearances on the album). Now that this long-gestating work is finally ready to be unleashed on the world, everything that has led to and delayed its completion helps put this collection into sharper focus.
The baker's dozen of tunes found on Make Good Choices is the product of a student of pop and rock history. Watching Nelson perform a full evening of songs by Harry Nilsson or Paul Williams (as he has done over the last few years), it became clear that he spent ample time dissecting and reassembling his favorite musical works. That studious approach helps him to attack his own material with a similar surgical precision on Choices. The instrumental elements click together like puzzle pieces: the electric piano and synthesizer waltzing so perfectly with the rhythm section on “Kicking Me Out Of The Band,” a slow, swinging barroom piano line joined by an equally woozy sounding brass section when the chorus of “Brooklyn Bridge” kicks in. Even when an angry sax solo claws to the surface as “More Good News From The Front” winds to a close, it still feels perfectly placed into the song's jerking, Devo-like structure.
As fine as it is to hear Nelson's musical aptitude in full flower once again, the real treat is found in chewing on his dense lyrical content. You've heard thousands of expressions from frustrated lovers but few that are as filled with poignant desperation as these lines from “Advance And Retreat”: “Your face says, 'It's on'/A sentiment your mouth contradicts/It's a pretty neat trick/To turn gold into lead/Snatch a chill from the jaws of such heat.” Nor can we think of a better expression of frustration at arrogant youth as “Holding court with the cliques and factions/An army of cheap distractions from the matter at hand… Here's your distance, you can keep it” from the pointedly titled “Stupid & 25 (The Incredibly Sad Shuffle).”
Don't for a second think from that last lyric that Nelson feels he's above it all. He may sneer a bit at the youth of America, but the body he throws under the bus again and again on Choices is his own. Your first inclination may be to try and rescue him, but he's using each broken bone and scar as fodder for his expertly constructed pop. It's a strange transaction, but one that music fans have been a part of for decades. Let's keep up our end of the bargain and delight in the results.