BIG HEAVY STUFF
Size Of The Ocean (Love As Fiction Records)
THERE ARE SEVERAL DIFFERING but intrinsically connected narratives that can be built around a “classic” album or its heroic cousin the “lost classic”, around the wistful “underappreciated gem” or the ever hopeful “ahead of its time” one. Each of these can attach at any point in the album’s history and be passionately defended with theories and explanations.
Of course, each of those theories and explanations are right – there’s no points table, there’s no winners and losers, so believe what you want to believe – and quite possibly all of them are right at the same time. Of course, they are all irrelevant to most people: those who didn’t own it, didn’t hear it, didn’t care either way.
What’s a more interesting discussion for me is why particular albums pass us by at a certain point, and what plays into us changing, or not changing, our minds about them a year, 10 years, 20 years later.
Big Heavy Stuff’s third album, Size Of The Ocean – reissued now on vinyl – came out in early 2001, with the longest-running line-up of the band that had formed a decade earlier, Greg Atkinson, Carolyn Polley, Eliot Fish and Nick Kennedy. They were contemporaries of Powderfinger and You Am I, pre-capitalisation silverchair and Jebediah, and operating in the bigger wash of Pearl Jam, Bush et al. A rock band, but one which had never shed completely the melodic roots of the band Atkinson and his brother, Darren, had started in the 1980s, Ups And Downs.
The narrative then (and still now?) was that this was if not the definitive statement, then at least a significant repositioning of the band: a group now freed of the demands and expectations of the nominally independent labels which had released the first two albums; a group that had moved on from the dominant flannel-and-guitars rock sound of the preceding decade, the sound which had started as a fringe of metal and punk-loving types who valued “authenticity” – whatever that might mean – above everything, and then wallowed up the centre.
But BHS was also a group which ostensibly failed with this record. Failed to be heard, to sell, to build on and last (splitting up after one more album in 2004) so that the reissue of this album in 2023 falls into the lost/underappreciated and now ready for re-evaluation category.
As someone for whom grunge and its offshoots was of not much more than mild interest most of the time, I paid little attention to Size Of The Ocean then and not at all since. So I’m hearing it now with a mix of carried-over assumptions and curiosity, and the strongest response is this really was a group prepared to wear vulnerabilities more openly.
Which is not the same thing as wearing emotions more openly; that stuff was a dime a dozen in a scene where no one would dare step out of the studio without a dozen emotion-heavy moments, usually despair and anger, but always a bit of bitterness and every so often some faint touch of hope, just enough to be crushed dramatically by song’s end.
No, what BHS regularly portray here is the certainty of uncertainty, musically and lyrically. And that’s no small thing to attempt.
Confidence is consistently checked against reality, force is consistently undercut by second thoughts, so that nothing ever steamrolls over listeners. Instead, we question everything, as if these are new arguments are being made and Atkinson’s voice is no more capable of answering the internal inquisitor then we are.
It is not just that tempos feel slower than previously, but that space hangs on and around all the instruments. Even at their most assertive the guitars carry weight behind them; in the prettiest or most tender moments acoustics or piano lean into headwinds. And the melodies don’t shy away from our gaze.
What Size Of The Ocean offers most of all is room to wonder and maybe doubt, which was in 2001, and remains in 2023, risky behaviour by any band operating in a business that values certainty. Was this why radio and the industry generally hesitated or flat-out rejected it? You might suspect so.
And who’s to say they were wrong to do so, when a significantly large portion of the music buying public – like a significantly large portion of the voting public – prefer a simple answer to nuance and their thinking done for them off-site.
But re-evaluation or discovery is available now for anyone curious. I like that narrative.