You know that really famous early 90s album with the naked baby in the swimming pool on the cover? You know how, like, everyone with even a tenuous connection to pop music has been reveling in that album’s 20th anniversary and forthcoming re-release for what feels like a year now? Well, the day is finally here, and people are pulling out all the stops. NPR Music’s got a “50 Artists Who Inspired Kurt Cobain” feature on its page right now, VH1’s ready to air footage of a never-seen-before 1991 Halloween gig later this week, and Spin slapped unreleased photos from Nevermind’s cover shoot on the front of its August issue. Perhaps more important than any of this though, is the question that the same magazine posed to its readers: What does Nevermind mean now? I’ll let the Docs n’ flannel set continue to probe that one themselves, but I am interested to see if the new reissue of Dntel’s Life Is Full of Possibilities generates even a fraction of that titillating interrogation a decade after it first hit shelves.
Sub Pop announced earlier this summer that they’d be giving Jimmy Tamborello’s 2001 glitch-pop opus a deluxe treatment to coincide with the album’s 10th birthday. 1991 and the advent of alternative culture’s mainstream debut might be getting all the recognition right now, but 2001 and the hapless events of a bright Tuesday morning that September provided a singular lens through which to assimilate an album that, like Nevermind, would be become inextricably linked to a collective moment in our history.
When Life Is Full of Possibilities first dropped, only a month had passed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While the three disaster zones were still smoldering, airports were enacting stringent security measures, comedians were being met with cries of “too soon,” and department stores couldn’t stock the shelves fast enough to keep up with the demand for American flags. It didn’t feel like there were copious amounts of potential and possibility to go around, and it’s as if Tamborello was keenly aware of this – despite the album’s utopian namesake, its cover art of a child’s toy ambulance came off as a not so subtle allusion to the panic of that day. Then there are the songs themselves to consider.
Life’s music has been assayed countless times through the context of Tamborello’s work with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and their ensuing collaboration as the Postal Service, yet the influential fractured synth-rock template they would go on to establish has sadly eclipsed the milestone relevance of Dntel’s first record. Tracks like “Fear of Corners”, “Suddenly Is Sooner Than You Think,” and “Why I’m So Unhappy” felt like sonic allegory, using subterranean bass, jittery percussion, and hazy atmospheres to represent the shell-shocked and sullen vehemence of the American people. On the newly remastered record, the doleful ambience of “Fear of Corners” becomes even more inauspicious, while “Why I’m So Unhappy” unfurls bristling shards of hiss and static that are firmly juxtaposed by Rachel Haden’s gossamer vocals and the plaintive tangle of guitar and piano chords.
Opening track “Umbrella” was unsettling the first time we heard it, when guest vocalist Chris Gunst’s filtered vocals first taught us that, “You can turn the city upside down / if you want to / but it won’t keep you dry.” On this deluxe edition, the song takes on a new kind of weary neuroticism, the mélange of whirring keyboard drones and scattered percussion effects standing in for our blighted urban landscape and the din of metropolitan living that has slowly regenerated since we first learned no one was safe.
“Fireworks” is another notable album cut that takes on new life here; after so many tracks of oscillating and variable grooves, the song’s unexpected danceability is bolstered by the quake of a four-to-the floor bass drum and recurrent bass punctuations. If you took the album’s sanguine slogan at face value, you’d probably expect to find more songs like this one.
Historical framework aside, the most pressing question with any reissue is whether or not enhanced sound quality and a smattering of extras should warrant a purchase on the part of longtime fans. Sub Pop is releasing Life Is Full of Possibilities as a two-disc set, one of which contains 13 tracks of b-sides, remixes, and unreleased cuts designed to bait the faithful. With all the gushing that followed Tamborello after he got an assist from Gibbard on the storied “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan,” it’s actually a pleasure to take in the four (!) alternate takes of the song, particularly the Barbara Morgenstern version in which the German artist adds her own vocals to the proceedings and strips away the blistering layers of fuzz that cloud the original. The anxious drums and oscillating bass drones of “Sorry_” wouldn’t have been at all out of place on the original LP, though the kitchen sink pastiche employed on “This Is How It Will All Be Over” comes off as somewhat slipshod.
While it’s hard to vouch for the purchase of Life Is Full of Possibilities based solely on its second disc of goodies, it’d be more difficult to defend not owning a copy of the original. Dntel was not and probably will never be the cultural institution that Nirvana or Nevermind is, but along with Radiohead’s Kid A, Dntel’s debut can’t help but transport you back to a defining moment in our 21st century history. It was a captivating listen then, and remains so now. As “Umbrella” reminds us: “You can’t forget / if you try.”