"Soon there'll be no pain again
You'll feel like yourself again
When you shoot all your heroin
In one big blast from
Your wave motion gun"
- Wave Motion Gun
After the release of their self-titled album in 1997, Marcy Playground found themselves in the spotlight of the indie rock world, as their first single, "Sex And Candy" rocketed up to the #1 spot on the Billboard Modern Rock Track charts and remained there for 15 straight weeks. Their clear sound, sometimes hearkening to psychedelia and sometimes to quiet folk rock, all with a heavy dose of Nirvana's more lucid moments, gave their music a strong emotional punch. Coming off of the huge momentum of that album, John Wozniak, Dylan Keefe, and Dan Rieser began work on their second album, Shapeshifter.
Their sophomore effort met with far less success than Marcy Playground. Their first single, "It's Saturday", superficially about the joy of being a kid and waking up early on Saturdays to watch cartoons and eat sugary cereal, didn't have the obvious marketing value of "Sex And Candy". "It's Saturday" never got higher than #23, the highest any of their singles would ever reach again.
I'm convinced it was a tragic mistake.
Shapeshifter is, in my opinion, the best album Marcy Playground has ever produced to date. It's one of my top ten of all time. It's a Good Album.
Marcy Playground's strength has always been their firm sense of bittersweet nostalgia. The word for it seems to be "saudade". Shapeshifter, even more so than Marcy Playground, is their tribute to being a lonely kid in a library, to growing up too fast and losing yourself in what you lost, to being the one who had trouble making friends in elementary school. John Wozniak's voice ranges from wistful to damning, almost but not quite joyous. Released on November 2, 1999, on the Capitol Records label, it's a fine example of the state of grunge music post-Nirvana. Bands like Bush and Candlebox were experimenting with the harder facets of grunge, but Marcy Playground were headed unswervingly into folk terrain, with tracks like "All The Lights Went Out" and "Bye Bye" showing off the emotional range and depth of John Wozniak's songwriting.
- It's Saturday - 3:17
But I've got some kind of disease
Ah, the opening track. They don't screw around, here; Dan Rieser breaks in with crashing cymbals, John Wozniak right behind, actually yodeling. At first listen, it's easy to write off as nothing more than a book-standard tribute to bein' a kid, but the last lines tie it back to their usual bittersweet tone.
And there are no remedies
Think I'll join Timothy Leary
In a cryogenic freeze
- America - 3:46
Find a place
A nice shift from the higher energy of "It's Saturday", "America" is a slower acoustically-driven piece. This is the sort of thing you can imagine them settling into as their night winds down, cigarette smoke trailing through the air as people sit back and listen with their eyes closed.
To call home
To call home
- Bye Bye - 2:49
Red velvet loveseat from olden times
That acoustic guitar comes back, jangling through the background right behind that warm'n'fuzzy electric guitar. "Bye Bye" is probably the happiest song about leaving Earth I've ever heard; John Wozniak sounds downright pleased with himself about finally getting off this "big blue marble" and moving on with things.
There's nobody on it but me
Everyone's cryin they're caught up in games
Me I'm as happy as I've ever been
- All The Lights Went Out - 4:55
She came in from stormy weather
The lead guitar swoops in on this one at about 1:37, right as the narrator's dream comes apart and he realizes he's still got his head in the clouds, even as "she" slips away from him, out of reach. Even as he jokes about it, you can hear the regret (or is it a touch of self-loathing?) leaking through between the lines.
And asked her friend to be there with her
When she slid down Cupid's bow
Oh lookin' fine that day
- Secret Squirrel - 2:56
No one moves quite like you do
No subtexts on this one, just a rolling paean to the glories of Saturday cartoons. Wozniak's "mad scientist" voice (complete with insane laughter) at 1:52 is the best part of the song.
Secret how do you do it
- Wave Motion Gun - 3:44
Wish you had their amenities
If I had to pick the best song from the entire album, it'd probably be this. It's not even four minutes long, but it's got the entire album summed up: bittersweet longing for your childhood, addiction, suicide, happiness, it's all here. And all of it is packed into a metaphor so dense it's like floating on The Dead Sea.
To fend off your enemies
In one big blast from your wave motion gun
- Rebel Sodville - 5:02
Bring wine for the queen in red; courage
No one really seems to know where the inspiration for this one came from. The only plausible explanation I've been able to find is that it was something Wozniak wrote when he was 15, based loosely on a D&D campaign he'd been playing. It's still in keeping with the rest of the album, and a little interesting to think that Wozniak's been wrestling with these sorts of concepts his whole life.
As time beats away
And she smiles as they drift past her humor and hopes
They all might stay
One more day
- Sunday Mail - 2:49
Will you send me something soon
Sweet and simple, it's a song to his girl, somewhere far off, waiting for that postman to show up. He's trying to play it cool at first, though, even through his desperation. It's not quite as disenchanted as their usual work, but it's still got those tones of longing running through it.
Will you swing me near the moon
With those words, I know
I know you will, I know you will
I know you will
- Pigeon Farm - 2:31
Out where the sun's in my eye
Wozniak lets the slightest hints of sarcasm leak through on the chorus of this one, enough to let you know that everything he's promising is not really something you can have. After all, only a crazy person would genuinely promise you a paradise, right?
And out where the hills hit the sky
There is a place
There is a fortune
It has everything to
Help you fit in with everyone
- Never - 3:50
When the night comes and you find that you're bound
I sometimes wish I knew a bit of the context that spurred the writing process for this one, because it's rather more complex than it seems at first glance. If you've ever been hypocritically and falsely accused of cheating on a significant other, you'll get it almost immediately; despite this, there's significantly less anger than I'd expect.
Tied to the tree and the straps at your knees
How many times have you seen me with her
- Love Bug - 4:12
Here is love bug
This one is the big mystery of the album. The lyrics seem to be referring to the simple concept of puppy love, but when filtered through Wozniak's usual preference for melancholy, I'm not exactly sure what I'm supposed to be puzzling out.
Found in heaven
Yeah, love bug is blind
And one of a kind
- Our Generation - 5:14
Are you a child of the free to be you and me generation
The tone shifts here: the overtones of sadness finally lift, and while there's still just a hint of it left, it's this track that really elevates the whole album from what would normally be a bunch of weepy bullshit into a genuinely enjoyable album. It's perhaps a bit kitschy, but Wozniak sounds like he means every word.
And are you confused with the world around you
I am a child of the free to be you and me generation
And I am with you in being confused
I admit, I have a lot of emotional connection to this album. The sentiments of trying to recover a more innocent childhood through self-destructive means and never quite getting there hit you right in that sweet spot; not in the gut exactly, but close. It's a damn good album, and a damn shame it's been all but overlooked since its release.
Marcy Playground - Shapeshifter (1999, Capitol Records)