My Favorite Cracker Album: The Golden Age by Doug Behrend
Cracker’s The Golden Age was released in 1996, an interminably long 3 years after Kerosene Hat, which was the greatest thing I’d heard in my life up to that point. But after my first listen then, and after nearly two decades of consistent listening, it’s the band’s third, brilliant, and wildly diverse album that stands atop the Cracker discography as my favorite for reasons both musical and deeply personal.
The album jolts us wide awake from the opening milliseconds with the abrasive “I Hate My Generation” which features both caustic Lowery vocals and a searing Hickman riff. Though this is by no means my favorite track, we know right away that Cracker is not going to pull any punches on this record. The opener also creates an immediate contrast with the album title: Can one really hate one’s generation while living in a Golden Age? Both musically and lyrically, one of Cracker’s strengths has always been its ability to juxtapose wildly different musical styles, lyrical themes, and emotions within single songs as well as whole albums.
These juxtapositions and contrasts are clearly apparent on The Golden Age. “I’m a Little Rocket Ship” and “Useless Stuff” are rockers for any occasion, and “100 Flower Power Maximum” and “Sweet Thistle Pie” have been on my psych-up playlist for years, but the album is more than just a collection of smart-ass, feel-good party tunes. Its slower and more introspective songs make direct hits on our soul. The dream-like “Dixie Babylon” and the plaintive “I Can’t Forget You” find Lowery contemplating past loves and Hickman adding more dynamic fretwork, with his crystalline acoustic contribution to the latter brought to the front of the mix to highlight a simple, beautiful song. As this song fades, it then segues spectacularly into the raucous guitar and harmonica opening of “Pie” and suddenly we are cranking the volume, rolling down the windows, and rocking hard again.
But like a big league lineup, it’s tracks 3, 4, and 5 that are the heart of this record. “Big Dipper,” arguably the band’s magnum opus, is a song so singularly evocative of a time and place—Santa Cruz in the 80s and 90s—that it is difficult for me to think about one without the other. Lowery’s lyrics have never been more poetic or poignant than here, from the brilliant opening line “Cigarettes and carrot juice, get yourself a new tattoo” to the “the terrible green, green grass and violent blooms of flowered dresses” to “Hey Jim Kerouac brother of the famous Jack,” Lowery brings us through the dull turnstiles and café steps of our memories for lucky bastards and places and opportunities long gone. But we are just as quickly snapped out of our reverie by the post-grunge guitar attack of “Nothing to Believe In.” Here, the classic Cracker combination of Lowery’s voice and Hickman’s shredding is complemented perfectly by Joan Osborne’s soaring backing vocals. Then, and almost as a relief, the title track grounds us once again by reminding us to live in the present, exhorting us to seize the day complete with Immergluck’s pedal steel and (gasp!) a Lowery-arranged string section.
On a deeply personal note, it was these three songs filled with equal measures of hope, despair, and survival that carried me over the Santa Cruz Mountains numerous times between a peninsula hospital (where my wife was being treated for a serious illness and where her dying mother was a resident) and our temporary home in Santa Cruz County in early 1999. I have no idea how many times I made that drive on 17 during those months, our infant and preschool daughters in the back seat, my wife often asleep in the passenger seat beside me. But invariably, as I would begin the climb and descent to get back to the beach at night, I would listen to just these songs and somehow I knew, though it was hard to imagine with the way I felt those days, that my own Golden Age was just beginning.
Let’s pick it up!