Few bands have faced mid-career challenges quite like Minneapolis, Minnesota’s Semisonic. After more than ten years together in various lineups under different names, the group finally achieved major commercial success with their second full-length album, Feeling Strangely Fine in 1998. However, the lead track from the album, the anthemic “Closing Time,” became so popular with mainstream rock and alternative rock audiences that it threatened to overshadow the band’s history as a group with credibility and integrity.
Semisonic’s origins date back to the vibrant alternative rock music scene of Minneapolis in the mid 1980s. While the city was best known as the home of Prince, several rock-oriented groups—many on the independent Twin Tone label—were also making their mark. Of these groups, the most influential upon the members of Semisonic was the Replacements, under charismatic front man and chief lyricist Paul Westerberg. While most of the alternative groups sounded like traditional guitar-oriented rock groups, sparse arrangements— bare bones recordings often made out of economic necessity rather than artistic choice—and offbeat lyrics made for music that was far more interesting and challenging than that of many other groups on the post-punk music scene.
With his brother Matt Wilson, one-time Harvard University art student Dan Wilson formed Trip Shakespeare around 1986. One of the more artistically inclined bands on the Minneapolis scene, the band had a loyal following of art-rock fans, especially in the Midwest, as well as a recording contract with A&M Records. Starting in the late 1980s, the band released several albums, including Applehead Man, Are You Shakespearienced, Across the Universe, and Lulu, in addition to a collection of songs on The Crane EP.In the end, despite some college radio airplay and a loyal group of fans, Trip Shakespeare’s record sales were scant; by the end of their run in 1991, the band had lost its record deal. Dan Wilson summed up the differences between Trip Shakespeare and his later efforts with Semisonic in an interview with the Dallas Morning News: “I was always the guy who listened to the radio all the time and would come up with way more hooky songs than Trip Shakespeare allowed for. I wanted to make big, slabby, ham-shank guitar riffs, but Trip Shakespeare was more about interweaving lines and guitar counterpoints and songs with all these Dylanesque characters.”
By 1993, with the help of former Trip Shakespeare bassist John Munson and the addition of drummer Jake Slichter, whom Wilson knew from college, the new trio formed another group, initially under the name Pleasure. Discovering that the band’s first choice for a name was already taken, however, the group settled on the name Semisonic and quickly secured a recording contract with Elektra Records. Unfortunately, management reorganization at the company relegated the
Members include John Munson, bass, vocals; Jake Slichter, drums, keyboards, vocals; Dan Wilson (born c. 1966), lead vocals, guitar, keyboards.
Group formed with two members of defunct Minneapolis band, Trip Shakespeare, 1992; toured the U.S. before recording independent label release Pleasure, 1995; briefly signed to Elektra Records, but released from contract; subsequently signed to MCA Records; released first major label album for MCA, The Great Divide, 1996; released second album, Feeling Strangely Fine, 1998; single from album, “Closing Time,” became one of the most popular rock tracks of 1998; released third album, All About Chemistry, 2001.
new band to neglect, and after about six months, the band left the label. Despite interest from other record labels, it seemed likely that Semisonic might follow Trip Shakespeare into relative obscurity.
By 1995, the group was ready once again to enter into another deal, this time with MCA Records. Yet their ambition to record led them to release a self-produced EP, Pleasure, on Boston’s independent label Cherry-Disc in the fall of 1995, which they supported as an opening band for the Freddy Jones Band that same year. Far from being upset at the band’s actions, MCA executives congratulated them on their drive to record and tour, and selected two songs from Pleasure to be included on a Starbucks coffee shop promotional CD. With the label’s support, the trio then enlisted producer Paul Fox, noted for his work with XTC and the Sugar-cubes, to guide their first full-length album to its completion.
Released in April of 1996, The Great Divide was hailed as “one of the year’s top debuts” by Billboard ’s Paul Verna, who noted that the “power-pop trio delivers irresistible three-minute tunes with smart but unpretentious lyrics, hooks galore, and sounds that are refreshing yet rooted in traditional ’60s pop.” Comparing the release favorably to other popular rock bands such as Britain’s Oasis and Elastica, Stereo Review ’s critic even suggested that Semisonic be acknowledged as “the Best Pop in America,” while Rolling Stone called their debut “that rare ’96 beast, a record of simple but sparkling modern pop, rattling with power-trio vitality.” The band also gained exposure by opening for singer Aimee Mann on her national tour. With such major accolades, however, sales for The Great Divide were disappointing. In its first two years of release, the album sold approximately 50, 000 units. This level of sales was a step up from Trip Shakespeare days, but fell far short of commercial expectations, given its critical reception.
For their second album, Feeling Strangely Fine, Semisonic enlisted former Midnight Oil producer Nick Launay in the effort, released in March of 1998. In contrast to the band’s first full-length effort of straightforward rock, Wilson’s direction took the band “in a murky folk-song mood, writing stuff with just an acoustic guitar,” as he told Billboard’s Doug Reece. With the popularity of grunge rock seemingly over, and the predicted frenzy over British guitar bands failing to materialize, Semisonic’s second album arrived at just the right time. The album’s lead track, “Closing Time,” a melodic, mid-tempo anthem about looking for romance at the end of the night, quickly scored on both the American modern rock and mainstream rock charts. The song’s memorable line, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end,” became one of the catch phrases of the year among rock fans, and the song earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rock Song.
Based on the phenomenal run of “Closing Time” on the charts—including ten weeks as the number one Modern Rock track on the Billboard charts— Feeling Strangely Fine surpassed sales figures for The Great Divide in just two months. Eventually, the album sold over a million copies in the United States alone, with the band promoting its work by touring with Matchbox 20 and Soul Asylum, another Minneapolis band. Semisonic also conducted an extensive tour of Britain where Q magazine granted Feeling Strangely Fine a four-star review that highlighted “Closing Time” as “an infectious joy blessed with an unforgettable hook.” The album eventually went platinum in Britain, going into the top 20 on the charts and selling over 300,000 units. Semisonic also earned a BRIT Award nomination for Best International Newcomer in the spring of 2000.
By now married with a daughter, Coco, born in 1997, Wilson once again changed musical direction for Semisonic’s third major-label outing, All About Chemistry, released in 2001. Influenced by the arena tours that they were now undertaking, Wilson “wanted [Semisonic] to make something that would be really fun to play on big stages like the ones we’d moved up to. And I wanted it to be an album that had the vibe of a big party, everyone’s invited, “as he stated on the RCA Records website. “On the last album, I wrote almost all the songs as secrets being told to just one person—like me whispering in your ear. This time around, I envisioned a big group of friends at a great party, where everyone has done a few things they’ll remember forever and everyone has done a few things that they’d rather forget.”
Pleasure, CherryDisc Records, 1995.
Great Divide, MCA Records, 1996.
Feeling Strangely Fine, MCA Records, 1998.
All About Chemistry, MCA Records, 2001.
Billboard, March 2, 1996, p. 14; April 27, 1996, p. 79; May 9, 1998, p. 11.
Dallas Morning News, January 28, 1999, p. 5C.
Entertainment Weekly, July 31, 1998, p. 74.
Q, December 1998, p. 128.
Stereo Review, August 1996, p. 80.
Official Semisonic Website, http://www.semisonic.com (February 8, 2001).
Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com/recordings/review.asp?aid=23571&cf=215 (February 3, 2001).
Best-selling album since 1990: Feeling Strangely Fine (1998)
Hit songs since 1990: "Closing Time," "Secret Smile," "All about Chemistry"
Semisonic's moment of ascendancy in pop music in 1998 was brief, but the erudite outfit did contribute the enduring "Closing Time" to the pop canon.
Dan Wilson and John Munson first got together in Trip Shakespeare, a Minneapolis-based outfit with an eccentric pop sound conceived at Harvard University. Wilson, who had studied art in Harvard's graduate program, joined the Trip Shakespeare lineup after its first album. After three subsequent albums with the band, Wilson recruited former classmate Jacob Slichter to join him and Munson in a new band called Semisonic. Semisonic released its first album, Pleasure, in 1995 and a full-length follow-up called Great Divide on MCA Records the following year.
Semisonic's clever songwriting and tight pop-rock sound initially made little headway with radio, but Feeling Strangely Fine, released in 1996, was a major success due to the wild popularity of the single "Closing Time." Buoyed by a simple, melodic piano and Wilson's plaintive vocal, "Closing Time" balances a wistful survey of a bar scene at the end of an evening ("So gather up your jackets, move it to the exits / I hope you have found a friend"), with the narrator's exuberance over finding his own match: "I know who I want to take me home." "Closing Time" also belies some of the band's intellectual roots, as audiences puzzle over lines like "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." "Closing Time" remained at number one on Billboard 's modern rock charts for ten weeks and in the Pop Top 10 for fifteen weeks.
The follow-up single "Secret Smile," on the merits of its infectious hook ("Nobody knows it, but you've got a secret smile") and simple pop arrangement, was a hit, but it failed to capture the imagination of pop audiences in the way that its predecessor had. The same fate befell Semisonic's follow-up album, All about Chemistry, despite continued plaudits from critics for the band's clever pop sound.
Semisonic's highest profile gig since its "Closing Time" days came in 2001, when the band appeared on the Paul McCartney tribute album Listen to What the Man Said. The band paid tribute to the influential songwriting skills of the former Beatle by covering the classic "Jet."
Great Divide (MCA, 1996); Feeling Strangely Fine (MCA, 1998); All about Chemistry (MCA, 2001).