Album Review: Semisonic – Great Divide

Semisonic Great Divide album cover art

Prior to becoming the band of 1998, Semisonic was a small outfit relatively unknown outside Minneapolis, MN, and maybe movie buffs.

Semisonic began in 1995 from the ashes of Trip Shakespeare as singer/guitarist  Dan Wilson and  bassist John Munson founded the band bringing along drummer Jacob Slichter. The alternative pop trio have remained together ever since despite a long absence from recording and touring.

Before Semisonic’s great ascension and constant radio presence with the release of their smash hit “Closing Time” on their 1998 sophomore effort Feeling Strangely Fine, Semisonic already rolled the musical dice on their 1996 debut Great Divide, a 12-song 45 minute album that mostly embraced the essence of 90s alternative rock with some outliers.

As for debut albums, the Great Divide sounds like a first release with Semisonic working on sometimes competing  musical directions and the band perhaps laying down all the original songs in their repertoire, at the time, for this record. This “A” for effort  debut prevents them from falling into the category of bands that release a platinum selling first album then crashing hard to earth shortly after but also explains the “lost factor.” Has anyone outside the diehards heard of Great Divide?

Semisonic, by the way finally has a new EP coming this fall, their first new material in nearly 20 years. The easy kick-back riffs return by the sounds of the first cut, “You’re Not Alone,” already out. And I have to plug drummer Slichter’s book So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star a poignant and sometimes hilarious look at the rise of Semisonic and rock stardom. Slichter recounts a meeting with their record executives and as they sat down he pretended to pull out a machine gun from his briefcase and mow everyone down. He thought it was funny not so much Wilson.

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Semisonic Great Divide Album Review

Great Divide opens with “F.N.T.” a fun pop tune with a catchy guitar rift that was featured in the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. So you may have heard this one since the film came out in 1999. (Way to take advantage of a band’s stock!) “F.N.T” and pretty much the first half of the album give you the classic sound of the 90s without the hard edge of some of the more alternative bands of the era. “If I Run” follows providing a glimpse of “Closing Time” guitar. “Delicious” continues the sweet 90s vibes with stronger guitar chords and a poignant Munson bass line. I hear a softer Foo Fighters’ song here.

A possible single missed by local alternative radio drops on “Down In Flames.” The moving rhythm brings a rocking gritty guitar and solo from Wilson and the whole package gives “Down In Flames” best song status for the album. “Across the Great Divide” continues in the same vein as the previous cuts albeit a little softer with a kind of 60s vibe.

After this, Great Divide starts a gradual trajectory south with slow, sometimes meandering tracks that would not work live, much less listening at home, though a few bright spots prevent the final half of the album from totally falling apart.

“Temptation” sets up this new soft rock direction for the album before “The Prize” pushes back thanks to some brash sounding guitar reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins. However, “No One Else” slows Great Divide to a near crawl and just doesn’t work. “Brand New Baby” comes back with a more melodic drive and upbeat tempo and “Falling” could work as a Gin Blossoms song thanks to the fun and cathartic harmonica. The final two tracks totally power down and barely get Great Divide across the finish line something seemingly quite attainable on the opening turn.

Great Divide provides enough musical moments but feels a bit bloated at times with some songs sounding like afterthoughts. Semisonic deserve praise, though, for such an ambitiously and relatively long debut record that at least lays the groundwork for their future.

Grade: C+

Semisonic Great Divide Track List:

  1. F.N.T.
  2. If I Run
  3. Delicious
  4. Down In Flames
  5. Across the Great Divide
  6. Temptation
  7. The Prize
  8. No One Else
  9. Brand New Baby
  10. Falling
  11. In Another Life
  12. I’ll Feel for You