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My ‘Tragic Kingdom’

2010/08/14 1 comment

Today, October 10, 2010 marks the fifteenth anniversary of No Doubt’s third studio album Tragic Kingdom. A few weeks ago I found myself listening to the album and realized how much time had passed since I first heard and purchased it. Even today that yellow and ultimately worn, scratched CD remains a staple of my music collection.

While I initially thought about discussing the production of the album or the success and the growth of the band it seemed foolish when anyone can search Wikipedia and find relatively the same information. Also, I do not know the band, never went to their concert nor have any detail of knowledge regarding the album outside of my personal experience. That is how most of us experience music though. We use it to mark events in our life, romance, friendship, parties and those private moments where we take in an album and let it affect us however it will. So this is mainly a personal account of how an album came into my life and am still listening to it fifteen years later.

In 1995 I was eleven and in the sixth grade. At that time I knew very little about music, artists, bands or anything of the like. Unlike many of my friends we did not listen to music much at home growing up. My parents and especially my father had an extensive record collection, which was stuck away in a shed collecting dust. Later on I learned of my parent’s passion for music, but somehow when I was growing up they had just about enough of all the pop and hippity hop they could handle. As such, my knowledge of music was extremely limited. Up to that point I had purchased only one album on cassette. Yes, cassette. That album was TLC’s very successful, Crazy Sexy Cool, which I could spend a whole blog entry on, but suffice it to say I had a lot left to listen to. As such Tragic Kingdom’s initial release went unnoticed by eleven year old me.

The following year, seventh grade, was a big shift. I attended an elementary school for seven years in Milwaukie, OR a suburb of Portland (excellent). That fall I began middle school on the opposite side of town from where most of my friends went. This was very hard, but even worse was by the end of fall my family moved to another town, the fabled Oregon City, the end point of the Oregon Trail video game and quite possibly the real trail. Moving there was a shock to say the least. People seemed to talk different, I was looked at as an oddity and there just seemed to be this weird smell all the time. I wasn’t sure if it was the people or the town. Long story short the Oregon City welcomes you with the Blue Heron Paper Mill, a constant reek fest regardless of the jobs it provides to the community, yadda yadda yadda. In any event I spent many afternoons crying and telling my parents I hated it and wanted to move home. Home before the move was a small, small two bedroom apartment in an increasingly seedier part of Milwaukie. The complex was once home to Tonya Harding in the immediate post Nancy Kerrigan, “Why, Why, Why” shin attack-scandal before the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. A real winner of a community.

While our new house in Oregon City was everything I could have dreamed of for my family the environment and especially the middle school left much to be desired. Seventh grade is hard for many as middle school seems to be some kind of black hole of existence where our hormones first kick in and prejudices are laid bare with little sense as to what or why we are doing anything. Simply, middle school sucked. At the time I could not empathize with anyone around me as it seemed everyone else had grown up in this neighborhood. Everyone’s parents had as well and they had all married each other. Starting to sound a little closed off, eh? Now try to weasel your way in during seventh grade when everyone is pre-programmed to hate everything and almost everyone for the next two years.

This poor me attitude worked for a period of time, but I had to get over it. This is where No Doubt comes in. Seventh grade for all of the crap I just described opened up the world of music to me for the first time. However, the mid-late nineties music scene had more than a few blemishes. In that time I got “jiggy with it,” told you that, “I wanna, really really really wanna zigazig ha ” and found that my heart would go on and on and on and on and on and oh god will someone shoot Celine Dion. I also became a big soundtrack lover (something that exists to this day.) While my interest has grown to include many musical scores and other film related music, in 1997-1998 there were two soundtracks which seemed to be in the CD case of every friend and other person I came into contact with; Baz Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet soundtrack and Can’t Hardly Wait. Something about those two albums made every thirteen and fourteen year old around me have to spend money.

The other album was No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom. When I purchased the album it had already been out for a year. The reason I purchased it could be as simple as I seeing other people with the album and in effort to be like all other middle school kids I would give the store clerk my money. Also, I can only vaguely recall listening to the album that first time. I pinpoint my interest growing by late winter when No Doubt performed Spiderwebs during the 39th Grammy Awards. Their performance did not wow me in any particular way. I do remember after watching the video again I liked when Gwen runs to stage right up the staircase. I remember thinking that running up those steps probably seemed much cooler to her than it turned out to be for the audience watching. However, nothing that Gwen did however ‘cool’ or ‘lame’ mattered since I was and am blinded by her beauty. My brain always seems to lose that chess match.

The other outcome of this performance was the word “ poseur” was introduced to my lexicon for the first time. Returning to school the week after the Grammy awards I was speaking with Lance or ‘pants’ as he was called since he wore those Jinko brand jeans every day. I think he only had one pair of pants and also I cannot remember why I wanted to wear those awful parachute pant wanna-be jeans. Anyway Lance didn’t have much to say about the Grammy’s but he was critical that Gwen would decorate her mic stand in ribbons during concert performances as this mimicked Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. Hence, Pants telling me, “No Doubt, they’re such poseurs.” I remember nodding my head like a good little follower, thinking inwardly that any awareness that I did not know what poser meant would lead to my discovery as an outsider and ultimately to my doom. Also, in the days before my family got internet it was not so easy to deduce what slang terms meant. So of course my reply was “Yeah, what poseurs.”

In spite of that interaction and the appropriate level of malaise all middle school students cast over themselves from openly liking anything or anyone I began listening more and more to Tragic Kingdom. It was the first album I could listen to every track without skipping and it seemed that each track was telling its own story within the whole of the album. That may be grandiose, but with my limited musical background it was the first album that spoke to me. At the time Spiderwebs was playing constantly on the radio so I got my fill from that single, but listening to it now I love the arrangement of bass to vocals and the backing track of trumpets. They all play off one another and create a full and fun sound.

 

I think that would be my summation for the album, a full and fun sound. Even songs like Don’t Speak, one of the many chronicling Gwen and bassist Tony Kanal’s breakup, have a wonderfully powerful chorus that changes the tempo significantly from the other verses. It is essentially a power ballad, but again one of the first I had ever heard. Also, looking at the release dates of the singles for Tragic Kingdom which span three years the album stayed on the radio and in my cd player for all of middle school and even the early high school days. While Just a Girl and Spiderwebs were released before I purchased the album the following five singles were all out during the time I owned a copy. This combination of limited music exposure and length at which the album produced singles helped cement the record into my musical history.

 

Other tracks like Sixteen I love for their energy and at the time letting me project my own suburban teenage angst into. Sunday Morning always reminds me with some nostalgia of my best friend Mike who would listen to that track every time he went snowboarding. Some of the other joys come from the small indescribable elements of listening to an album multiple times through knowing every pause, every movement from start to finish. Like the joy of listing to Excuse Me Mr. knowing that in a short span of time it will transition into Just a Girl. There is also the sharp contrast between the relatively slow paced The Climb which is then cut in half like a buzz saw by drummer Adrian belting out the count from the outset of Sixteen. Even You Can Do It with its significantly groovier dance hall style is a nice change from the heavy Don’t Speak just before and the sunny, slower style of World Go ‘Round. The final two tracks of the album also provide wonderful memories. The album title track has grown on me over the years and knowing that it was written solely by Eric Stefani who left the band to pursue a career in animation with The Simpsons provides a sweet sadness to his departure. Of all the tracks on the album End It On This always transports me to the first years I could ever have or want a summer romance. I still feel that rush, that excitement that enveloped me with every crush or new love. Listening to that song I remember a long embrace, a first kiss, a small perfect moment. Even though the song is speaking about the end of things I always interpret it as trying to stay within that instant when your body fills with joy and it is surging so much you feel you could bottle it. Precious and unforgettable.

When I listen to their albums following Tragic Kingdom (Return of Saturn and Rock Steady) they seem dated to the time in which they were released. This is not a jab against the albums just a feeling that comes from listening to them again. For instance several tracks from Return of Saturn like New or Simple Kind of Life are really enjoyable and the whole of Rock Steady is fun, dance pop excellence. However, they do not possess the same presence of their first major success.

While birthdays, anniversaries and holidays often help mark the passage of time music seems to move through us cementing memories and moments of our lives. Fifteen years later Tragic Kingdom still seems as fresh to me now as it did then. Through it I recall events in my life which happened before I formed life goals or tried to pursue them. It came before I experienced love or heartbreak. In many ways this album is a breaking point between my childhood and everything that has come since. While this ‘review’ might not provide a lot of factual information, it is a full bodied lived experience which is the only way to let music in.