ALBUM REVIEW by Victor Stranges
After two stunning albums, # 1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974), Big Star was in the process of dissolving with lack of commercial success a contributing factor. Two of its founding members, Andy Hummel and Chris Bell, had vacated the line up which would most likely send the Memphis group off the edge of a cliff.
Tracking for Third / Sister Lovers commenced at Ardent Studios in September 1974 with Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens at the helm. Stephens said, “I’ve seen it in different ways. To a great extent, it is an Alex solo record ... It’s Alex’s focus, it’s his emotional state of being but I brought in the string section for the one song I wrote and Alex hit it off with Carl Marsh ... and started using Carl and the string section for other things. What would that album have been like if it didn’t have the strings?”
The recording included what biographer Bruce Eaton described as “a large and revolving cast of Memphis musicians” to record, with producer Jim Dickinson, “a batch of starkly personal, often experimental, and by turns beautiful and haunting songs that were anything but straight-up power pop.” Disappearing were the rocking guitar motifs of Big Star’s earlier work and they were replaced by a fractured and mesmerizing performance by Chilton and Stephens.
The album kicks off with the upbeat ‘Kizza Me’ as Chilton repeats, “I want to feel you deep inside,” laying the groundwork for the emotional direction of the record. The spiritual affirmation of ‘Thank You Friends’ is truly uplifting with female Memphis backing vocals driving the soul of Chilton’s communiqué of love and gratitude. But what comes next is a confounding track called ‘Big Black Car.’ It could easily find a home on Twin Peaks or a David Lynch movie. Its dreamy guitar straddles Chilton’s wistful vocal as he travels through life in his “big black car.”
“Jesus Christ” starts off as a bizarre circus-like ditty that quickly transforms into glorious praise and worship that is totally heartfelt and unsarcastic. The majesty of kettle drums and Memphis horns take it to another realm. Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale” displays Chilton’s fragile vocals as it seamlessly breezes through the corridors of the mind of its author, peering through each room while Chilton’s jagged guitar chimes in sparingly. His guitar work is very understated but tastefully punches in and out. The guitar becomes part of the song’s allure and along with the string section, provides the uneasy elements throughout the whole album that make it work.
Chilton’s lyrics highlight deep depression and isolation, peppered with intermittent optimism and humour. Songs such as “Holocaust” and “Kanga Roo” demonstrate experimental leanings, not unlike The Velvet Underground, whilst Blue Moon and Take Care are the ballads that provide the musical cartilage keeping the listener’s heart affected.
Ardent issued white-label test pressings for the album in 1975 but financial issues, lack of commercial interest, and waning enthusiasm from singer Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens in completing the record meant the album was never properly finished or released at the time of its recording. It was finally given a release in 1978 by a now-defunct New Jersey sub-label of Passport Records called PVC Records. The confusion surrounding the release of this album meant that to this day there has never been a definitive version agreed upon by the band. Over the years, multiple versions were made available including a 1992 CD release on Rykodisc, assembled with Jim Dickinson. The 1992 release most closely represents the original planned song order and brings to the fore the music’s intended thrust, warts, and all.
In 2016, Omnivore Recordings released the “Complete Third” box set which was a three-disc definitive selection of the album. It included Alex Chilton’s demos to rough mixes by producer Jim Dickinson and engineer John Fry to the final master which was rejected by various record companies. The release was sequenced in chronological order and is a fitting tribute to a masterpiece that was never fully realized in the eyes of its creators.
Third / Sister Lovers was ranked #1 in the Top 30 “Heartbreak” albums of all time by NME. The album was also listed at #31 on NME’s “Darkest Albums Ever: 50 of the Best”. Its influence resonated many years after its release and new versions of the songs were later recorded by This Mortal Coil, Jeff Buckley, Rainy Day (the Paisley Underground all-star group), Placebo, The Monkees, The Afghan Whigs, and Teenage Fanclub.
Chilton and Stephens were not afraid to wear their influences on their sleeve, but more than that, they made it their own. The Kinks’ “Till the End of the Day” was an unexpected bonus on the reissue and Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” was haunting. The deeply disturbing “Dream Lover” was also added as one of the bonus tracks. The song is a stark reminder of the creative genius of Alex Chilton who really broke new ground in music.