Semisonic, All About Chemistry: An Overlooked Great of the 2000s

Semisonic, All About Chemistry. MCA, 2001.

Did you know Semisonic released a new EP this year? I sure didn’t! That makes You’re Not Alone — released September this year — the first new music released by the band in nineteen years. That’s not to say that the members of Semisonic walked away from the industry in those nineteen years, however. Bassist John Munson has been playing in bands The Twilight Hours and The New Standards since the early 2000s, drummer Jacob Slichter wrote a book on his time with Semisonic, and Dan Wilson has been writing and producing some of the last decade’s biggest hits. Remember Adele’s “Someone Like You”? Wilson co-wrote that song and co-produced Adele’s Grammy Award-winning 21, along with a plethora of other songs for other established artists like The Chicks, Josh Groban, and power pop/alternative rock contemporary Weezer. It’s safe to say that the members of Semisonic have been busy with their own goings on in the intervening time, so it’s no surprise that the band is as sharp as ever on You’re Not Alone. It’s a solid EP with some solid hooks, which is to be expected if you’re familiar with Semisonic, but there isn’t really much more unique I can say about it. It’s a good EP if you’re into Semisonic’s power pop, alt-rock tinged sound. Plus, it’s fifteen minutes of new Semisonic music, which is cool enough on its own merits.

While You’re Not Alone prompted me to write this, I’m not here to discuss You’re Not Alone, but the album that came out nineteen years prior: the last studio album before Semisonic’s nineteen year hiatus, 2001’s All About Chemistry. I think it’s one of the most underrated albums of the 2000s, and if you haven’t given it any attention, then now is a great time to give it a listen.

Semisonic released three albums from 1996 to 2001: Great Divide, Feeling Strangely Fine, and All About Chemistry. Of these three albums, I would argue that All About Chemistry is both the best and most overlooked album of Semisonic’s catalogue, but that’s not necessarily surprising. Great Divide featured “F.N.T.,” a song that would feature in the film 10 Things I Hate About You and likely turned a lot of people onto that album. However, if you know Semisonic for anything, it’s probably for the lead single and opening song of Feeling Strangely Fine, “Closing Time.” Easily their biggest hit, “Closing Time” reached number 1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart and got as high as number 8 on the Top 40. It’s impossible to go over Semisonic’s history without mentioning “Closing Time.” Like many one-hit wonders, Semisonic’s one hit is simultaneously indicative and completely unindicative of their work. While “Closing Time” defined Semisonic’s sound of piano hooks overlaid with distorted guitars, putting them firmly in between power pop and ‘90s alt-rock, the sappy balladry of “Closing Time,” while far from a bad thing, is certainly sappier than most all of Semisonic’s other work. While they certainly didn’t shy away from sappiness and sentimentality, Semisonic’s best songs were always about flawed people navigating flawed emotions, and that’s where All About Chemistry shines brightest.

If the song isn’t the first thing that pops into your head when you think of Semisonic, the split screen music video that accompanied “Closing Time” probably is.

As the title of the album implies, much of its songs are themed around the chemistry between people, whether that be positive or negative. The title comes from the chorus of the opening track, “Chemistry,” and as far as album openers go, it’s hard to get better than “Chemistry.” In some ways this may be seen as a negative, as “Chemistry” might just be the best song on the album, a mission statement with Semisonic’s emotion-filled hooks and honest lyrics about “conducting experiments” with various people. It’s easy to view a thinly-veiled metaphor like that as corny, and it certainly is, but beneath all that corn is some genuine reflection on both the people who shape us and how we choose to shape ourselves. It’s no wonder Dan Wilson decided to pursue songwriting behind the scenes after Semisonic, because the jump in lyrical quality from Feeling Strangely Fine to All About Chemistry is noticeable right from the opening. Wilson is no stranger to double entendres (“Closing Time” has them in spades), but All About Chemistry might just have his most interpretive, literary lyrics out of the band’s discography. While many of the songs have very clear meanings — “Chemistry” is definitely about sexual experimentation, “Get a Grip” is definitely about jerking off — they never detract from the songs themselves. The lyrics are always boasted by strong instrumentation, whether it be blaring guitars on “Get a Grip” or the consistent piano that upholsters all of “Chemistry.”

This is more than just a Dan Wilson solo project, however. I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the contributions of John Munson and Jacob Slichter as well. Since Wilson’s piano and guitar playing are generally based in the melodic elements of Semisonic, Munson and Slichter are responsible for maintaining the band’s rhythm. They didn’t falter before, and they certainly don’t here. I doubt I could convince anyone reading this that Munson and Slichter’s playing on this album is genre-defining or greatest-of-all-time quality, but their playing is consistently solid and enhances melodies that could have carried songs all on their own, so overall, the album is better for the cohesion of its band members.

Jacob Slichter has previously co-written some of the band’s finest songs like “If I Run” and “Never You Mind,” but his best songwriting effort may very well be All About Chemistry’s closer, “El Matador.” Perhaps the most evocative song on the album, it’s a contemplation on time well (or poorly) spent and what the future holds. “Please don’t go away / Stay awhile, stay awhile,” is the closest thing the song has to a chorus, though it’s not clear who the speaker is talking to. A lover? Maybe even time itself? Love and time are consistent themes throughout All About Chemistry and especially “El Matador,” but it’s never clear who, if anyone other than the speaker, is being spoken to here. While I might describe Semisonic as a literary band, I would not always call them poetic, but lines from “El Matador” like “September and the streets are restless / Wind chimes blow in the dark / Lying on the couch defenseless / With blue clouds court and spark” are as emotional and evocative as any singer-songwriter of the era. Appropriate, considering that last line alludes to three separate Joni Mitchell albums.

Speaking of singer-songwriters, Carole King is on this album, co-writing and singing on “One True Love.” I don’t think it reaches quite reaches the heights of “El Matador,” but it’s worth pointing out for the sheer fact that Dan Wilson and Carole King co-wrote a song, and her singer-songwriter legacy brings a level of specificity and inner reflection that Wilson doesn’t always focus on in the poppier moments of the album.

All About Chemistry is far from perfect, and it would be unfair of me to not point out some of the flaws I have with it. I’ve already made it clear that I love this album and I think it doesn’t get nearly enough love, but if I had to single out any part of the album, it would probably be two tracks in the middle. The Munson-led “Who’s Stopping You?” and the eight minute “I Wish” are far from bad tracks, but the hooks on “Who’s Stopping You?” don’t quite land for me (though it does include some math-based double entendres, which brings it closer to the chemistry theme than many songs on the album) and “I Wish,” while doing more interesting things musically and lyrically, does not have enough going for it to justify an eight minute runtime. Even just a minute shorter would probably bring “I Wish” up for me, but that’s a pretty minor nitpick all things considered. In general, the songs are quite long, ranging from anywhere from three and a half to the aforementioned eight minutes. Semisonic rarely made a song shorter than three minutes, however, and by the third album they are clearly comfortable crafting three to five minute songs, only faltering when they try to bloat things out a bit further.

Despite some very minor drawbacks, All About Chemistry is a definitive album of early 2000s power pop that shows Semisonic deserved much more than one-hit wonder status outside of those few who were dedicated enough to seek out more. The lyrics are tighter than their previous albums, and the band members’ strengths are amplified to create quintessential power pop while also being unafraid to experiment with new sounds (I didn’t even have time nor the verbal capabilities to delve into the synthesized sounds the band experiments with in the opening to “Bed” or the entirety of “She’s Got My Number,” a personal favourite). I really can’t recommend this album enough for fans of power pop or alternative rock of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and especially for people who only know Semisonic as the “Closing Time” band. You’re Not Alone has doubled down on the fact that Semisonic is more than their one big hit, but All About Chemistry also managed to do that nineteen years earlier and definitely deserves to be acknowledged and commended for it, as well as for just being a really damn good 50 minutes of music.

Since it prompted the writing of this, I may as well show off the album art for You’re Not Alone. It’s pretty nice album art!

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