Monday, February 25, 2019

100 Albums: "Cosmic Thing" by The B-52's

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: The B-52's
Title: Cosmic Thing
Released: 1989
Genre: Bouffant new wave surf-rock


There are things that you love, not because they're particularly good, but because they just make you happy. For me, that is Cosmic Thing. Any time I listen to it, I feel better.  The album is a mix of dance tracks and relaxed mid-tempo pop (and also Love Shack, which is sort of both) with call-and-response vocals and funk-rock guitars. It's a bit of an artifact of its era, production-wise: at only ten tracks, it's nearly 50 minutes long, meaning songs have time to linger and play around, instead rushing through verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/outro. It is aggressively campy. The album opens with a drumroll and Fred Schneider shouting "Gyrate 'til you've had your fill" on the title track--a song about having an out-of-body experience, running across cosmic beings, and watching them "shakin' their cosmic things." So, not exactly highbrow entertainment, but unapologetically fun.

The B-52's came out of the same Athens, Georgia rock scene that produced R.E.M. Athens in the 80s was similar to the way we think of Austin, Texas today: an oasis of weirdness and youth culture in the middle of an otherwise very conservative state. It shouldn't be a surprise that they were embraced early by the gay community, and in many ways, Cosmic Thing is a celebration of being different and an acknowledgement of the isolation that accompanies it. You can see this in microcosm in the album's (and the group's) biggest song Love Shack, which posits a tiny shack "set way back in the middle of a field" full of people "huggin' and-a kissin', dancin' and-a lovin'," but it's a lyrical motif that shows up throughout. In Deadbeat Club they sing about going to "crash that party down in Normaltown tonight." Dry County is about relaxing on your front porch because you can't get alcohol, and it contains possibly my favorite lyric of the album:
When the blues whomp you up on the side of the head
Throw 'em to the floor and kick 'em out the door
When the blues kick you in the head when you roll out of bed in the morning
Just sit on the porch and swing
There's an optimism to the record that I really enjoy. The final song is an instrumental track called Follow Your Bliss. The song before that, Topaz, is full of hopeful imagery about "cities by the sea" and "blue dolphins are singing" and "the universe expanding." It's not really about anything, just a list of nice ideas. Roam is about traveling the world just because you feel like it. The only moderate downer is Channel Z, which is certainly uptempo, but is more of a protest song. Even so, Cosmic Thing is a romp--just an infectiously joyful record that wants to throw you a party.

Again, some things you love just because they make you happy.

Further listening: The group's other big hit is Rock Lobster, a weird surf/dance song that John Lennon was apparently a huge fan of when he heard it in a club some six months or so before his death. One can only imagine that, had history played out differently, he might have collaborated with them.

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