16. The Dream Syndicate, Ghost Stories
As the title implies, Ghost Stories is a fairly gloomy record, at least lyrically. That surely stems from the uncertainty the Dream Syndicate endured on the road to their fourth studio album. Each of their three previous full-lengths had been on a different label, and they had gone through at least one aborted break-up precipitated by the heavy disappointment over their music business struggles. If other bands sometimes filter their own discontent to forecast the imminent demise of the group on what proves to be their final album, the Dream Syndicate wrapped up their collective career as a recording outfit with a release that instead smacks of post-mortem examination.
If the lyrics are often grim, if wryly so, the music certainly isn’t. Chief songwriter Steve Wynn always had a way with a pop-rock hook, and Ghost Stories is filled with terrifically catchy songs. There’s acid in the bonbons, though, as with album opener “The Side I’ll Never Show,” which keeps coming back to a chorus that announces, “Every cloud has a silver lining/ Every doubt has an answer, I know/ But in my heart there’s no light shining.” In general, the song titles do a fine job of conveying the sensibility of the record: “Weathered and Torn,” “Someplace Better Than This,” and “When the Curtain Falls.” Even the inevitable cover song gathers foreboding clouds, as Wynn and company snarl through Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” There was certainly a healthy dose of cynicism present on previous albums by the Dream Syndicate, but Ghost Stories brought it to a whole different level.
By some accounts, a decent amount of the toughness and even anger that comes through on the record was due to the manipulations of producer Elliot Mazer, best known as Neil Young’s go-to guy in the studio. Mazer reportedly decided that Wynn performed better when he was a little on edge, so the producer routinely antagonized him during the recording process, which probably didn’t contribute to the long-term health of an already ailing band. On the evidence of the record itself, Mazer’s strategy may have been sound. Wynn barely comes across as a punk rocker on Ghost Stories (maybe a little bit on the bitter, stomping blues of “Weathered and Torn”), but there’s a fire there that elevates the whole album. Glum as it is when focusing on the words, the music conveys the tale, perhaps inaccurate, of a band fighting for their shared life. That friction is a major part of what makes Ghost Stories a great record.
Of course, the quality of the record can be directly traced to the skill of Wynn’s songwriting, too. There’s the buzzing punchiness of “My Old Haunts” (“These streets are paved with stories/ Of faded hopes and glories”) and the tender elegance of “Someplace Better Than This,” which sounds like the missing link between Harry Nilsson and the National. “Whatever You Please” has the melodic wistfulness of the Kinksin the nineteen-seventies, with Wynn even giving it his best world-weary Ray Davies inflection when he sings, “Well, I used to care/ That was a long time ago.” Over and over again, the band delivers with the consummate skill that made their many (but not plentiful enough) true believers lament them as one of the great bands of the eighties that never got the attention they deserved. Already reanimated, the band may have known full well this would be their last studio outing together, but they don’t sound defeated at all. To use a tired but apt phrase, they go down swinging.
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues