In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase, which went to No. 1 on Dec. 7, 1996, where it stayed for two weeks.
“Why won’t anyone take Gavin Rossdale seriously?” asked the April 18, 1996, cover of Rolling Stone. As the cover noted, his band, Bush, had sold 3 million albums and scored five hit singles—the kind of success that, by all accounts, demands notice. Even though music history is littered with artists who sold well but enjoyed no critical accolades, the derision Bush faced after the blockbuster success of its 1994 debut, Sixteen Stone, felt especially vicious.
To the people dismissing Bush, the Rolling Stone cover answered its own question: To the left of the text sat frontman Gavin Rossdale, shirtless with legs spread on a messy bed, his left index finger and thumb coquettishly in his mouth and a come-hither look in his eyes. In a music world still beholden to the alternative revolution that favored the ugly and confrontational—sonically and aesthetically—Rossdale was too beautiful to be credible. Worse, his band played slick rock that seemingly cribbed grunge’s identifiers but polished them into something soulless and more marketable. Nearly eight months to the day after Kurt Cobain’s suicide came an album by a guy who seemed to mimic the Martyr Of The Alternative Nation to an infuriating degree. “Rossdale is the most blatant rock ’n’ roll crook since Jimmy ‘Why credit them ol’ blues guys?’ Page,” wrote Jim DeRogatis in a characteristically cutting review.
From the beginning, Bush had trouble earning respect. Rossdale started the band outside of London in 1992 with guitarist Nigel Pulsford, joined later by bassist Dave Parsons and drummer Robin Goodridge. The band gigged around London to little notice, until a demo reached American record executive (and former George Michael manager) Rob Kahane, who felt Rossdale “had a look which was very favorable for marketing and selling records.” Bush landed a deal in the U.S., but it wasn’t until Sixteen Stone became successful here that the band secured its release in its home country. But by then Oasis was ruling the roost with impunity, and second-wave grunge (at best) or second-rate “Nirvanabes” (at worst) seemed passé.
Plenty of critics said as much Stateside, but the American public gobbled up Sixteen Stone, which would eventually sell 5 million copies and turn Bush into an arena act. That made its successor, Razorblade Suitcase, one of the most anticipated albums of 1996.
Dismissed as poseurs and coattail riders, Bush was primed to make a statement with its sophomore album. If Sixteen Stone was too slick and poppy, Razorblade Suitcase would be sparser and moodier. If music snobs were too quick to dismiss Bush as a Nirvana clone, Razorblade Suitcase would make them reconsider. Bush would do all this by hiring notoriously caustic indie producer Steve Albini—who also recorded Nirvana’s second major-label album, In Utero. Kyle Anderson captured the ensuing reaction well in his book Accidental Revolution: The Story Of Grunge:
“There’s no possible way that Rossdale did not consider at some point in the process that the news of Albini’s production would cause a massive backlash and even more name-calling and dismissing, so Rossdale was either (1) unbelievably self-confident in his wishes to work with whomever he wanted to work with, the rest of the world be damned, (2) calculated in his attempts to make Bush into less of a band and more of an art experiment (where the experiment was apparently ‘do what Kurt did’), or (3) unforgivably stupid and naïve.”
Or, as DeRogatis put it, “Clearly Bush thought it could buy credibility with this noise, which is the only reason anyone ever puts up with Albini.”
“Fuck the journalists,” says Bush manager David Dorrell in Jennifer Nine’s Twenty-Seventh Letter: The Official History Of Bush. “Fuck the critics out there that wanted to say, ‘Oh you did it because…’ No. We did it in spite. Yeah, like we were so stupid that we didn’t know? Of course we knew. But you know what? It wasn’t because we knew or didn’t know, it was because Steve was a really good person for the fucking job.
“We make what would be called good decisions for other bands, and we’re told they’re bad decisions for us. The nub of the issue is certainly not about Steve’s ability as a recordist. The received wisdom was, ‘Don’t step on that grave.’ What, like he’s not to work again or something?”
During his three decades in music, Albini has developed a reputation as a puritanical scold, the most strident devotee of punk’s do-it-yourself, anti-corporate ethos. That he chose to work with such a blatantly derivative band raised eyebrows, though Albini has long held that he’ll record “any swingin’ dick that comes through the door.” As he told Spin before the release of Razorblade Suitcase, he decided to work with Bush after meeting Rossdale for lunch and finding him to be a “genuine guy, remarkably untouched by his success.” (“I thought he was going to spit in my face!” Rossdale says in Twenty-Seventh Letter.)
Even more surprising, he discovered he had a lot in common with Rossdale. “Almost every day work stops because there’s a degeneration into some conversation about what our favorite records are. I think we’re pretty much all birds of a feather.” The same story mentioned the CDs by PJ Harvey, Slint, and The Jesus Lizard—all of whom worked with Albini at some point—on Rossdale’s kitchen table, and another profile in Spin a couple years later noted that Rossdale favored “indie noise,” this time name-checking Albini’s long-running band, Shellac.
“Steve Albini has been more important to me in terms of records I’ve listened to than any other person,” Rossdale told Spin. “In Utero is included in that, but it came out after. I’m talking about before.”
Rossdale’s favorite “before” reference was Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, which he often cited as an influence. (This further fed his reputation as a Cobain wannabe, because the Nirvana frontman confessed to emulating Pixies.) It was a landmark album as well for Albini, who eschews the “producer” label and prefers not to be credited at all. Twist his arm, and he’ll accept “engineer,” all of which is to say he’s not a man who makes slick, commercial albums. (Geffen famously hated the way In Utero sounded and forced Nirvana to remix the singles.) He captures bands as they are, warts and all, which must have seemed to Bush like the antidote to the overdriven slickness of Sixteen Stone.
Just in case there were any doubts about the band’s intentions, Bush opens Razorblade Suitcase with the sound of a snarling dog at the beginning of “Personal Holloway.” But for all of its rawness—it sounds like sitting in Bush’s practice space—the album is surprisingly mellow. Whereas Sixteen Stone has aggressive, more briskly paced songs like “Everything Zen” and “Machinehead,” Razorblade Suitcase favors a slower, moodier sound to the point of outright tedium.
Starting with track five, “Cold Contagious,” the songs tend to wallow in slow, airy beginnings (quiet guitar and subdued vocals anchored by a similarly restrained rhythm section) that become indistinguishable. “Mouth,” “Synapse,” “Communicator,” “Bonedriven,” “Distant Voices”—the last four in sequential order—turn the back half into a plodding, repetitive slog. Not helping matters is the average song length, which hovers at four and a half minutes. (Three songs last more than five, including the interminable six-minute “Cold Contagious.”) “Straight No Chaser,” a sibling ballad to the Sixteen Stone hit “Glycerine,” offers a poppier, though still understated, reprieve. That leaves only three outright rockers, “Personal Holloway,” “Swallowed” (the album’s sole big hit), and “History.” The other songs generally work their way to a more intense place, but the mood-building becomes ineffective the more Bush repeats it.
AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine put it well: “The problem is that Gavin Rossdale has not come up with any hooks, which means that while Razorblade Suitcase is more pleasing and visceral on the surface, it offers no hooks to make it memorable, unlike the hit singles from Sixteen Stone.” DeRogatis was typically savage: “The 13 tunes on Razorblade Suitcase are utterly bland, lifeless, unmemorable, and bar-code generic, though this time it’s in an abrasive, skronking way as opposed to the big polished grunge way of Sixteen Stone.” Rolling Stone called Bush “the Bon Jovi of grunge” in its two-star review, and its writers named Bush the worst band of 1996 and Razorblade Suitcase the worst album. (They also called Weezer’s Pinkerton the second-worst album of the year, so…) Spin slammed it as well, though its December ’96 Bush cover story swung wide in the other direction: “Razorblade Suitcase is a vast improvement on Sixteen Stone, as good as any Albini roller coaster—emotionally thrilling, virtuosically played, and utterly infectious,” a line so comically hyperbolic that anyone would be forgiven for thinking writer James Hannaham was being ironic.
Bush released a slew of videos to support the album, including a hilariously pretentious seven-minute short film for “Greedy Fly” that was not only shot in one of the buildings from Se7en but also used some of the same creative team. Unsurprisingly, the video blatantly imitates the film. “I had already seen Se7en before we shot it,” Rossdale says in Twenty-Seventh Letter, “but seeing it again after the video, I have to say I was a little embarrassed, thinking ‘I wish they’d had a few more new ideas.’” He had reason to be embarrassed: Director Marcus Nispel had him bound up like Hannibal Lecter, wearing what Rossdale describes as a “stupid fucking dog collar.”
The band also toured relentlessly, staying on the road for 14 months to promote the album (including some dates with The Jesus Lizard supporting—Rossdale had met frontman David Yow through Albini, and the two had become fast friends). It all paid off: Razorblade Suitcase sold 6 million copies in the U.S.—2 million of them before Christmas—and made Bush one of the most successful rock bands of the era.
It also marked Bush’s peak. A fight with its label delayed the release of the band’s next album—recorded with Sixteen Stone’s Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley—but Bush’s sound was on its way out. As Anderson notes in his book, “in 1997 the whole world assumed that electronic music would be the next big thing” as The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers ascended into the spotlight. Bush changed with the times for The Science Of Things, whose mix Spin noted was “bolstered by the occasional drum loop and electronic effect to make it sound”—ugh—“a little more 1999.” Another album followed in 2001 before the band broke up. Rossdale started another group (with some ringers from the indie and hardcore scene), then pursued a solo album, only to resuscitate Bush in 2010 minus the uninterested Pulsford and Parsons. For 2011’s self-released The Sea Of Memories, Rossdale and company chose superstar producer Bob Rock, definitively burying any concerns about cred.
“Credibility doesn’t buy groceries,” Albini told me when I interviewed him a few years ago. “At the point that I was working with Bush, they were playing 200 shows a year to sold-out arenas and stadiums, 10,000 kids a night, 15,000 a night. They didn’t need any credibility, you know?” He laughed. “When you’re the No. 1 band in America, you don’t need credibility, because the fact that you’re the No. 1 band in America has its own sort of implied credibility.”
For Bush, implied credibility would have to do. That, and massive fame and fortune.
Next: Annie Zaleski looks at U2’s Zooropa.