jellyfish

Popdose Flashback 1993: Jellyfish, “Spilt Milk”

Flashback93

They may not have known it would be their masterpiece. We had no idea it would be their last album. In 2013, Spilt Milk by Jellyfish turns twenty years old.

According to interviews from primary members Andy Sturmer and Roger Joseph Manning Jr., the process of recording Spilt Milk was exhaustive. The sessions became something of a legend within the West Coast recording community. The panoramic picture(s) inside the original CD booklet is a witness to it, with band members stationed around a studio filled to the square inch with instruments both common and exotic. Spilt Milk has that rare combination of being extremely easy on the ears yet as complex as anything one has ever heard. It resides somewhere between the sugared harmonies of the Beach Boys, the guitar operatics of Queen, the snap of ’70s power pop from groups like the Raspberries or The Knack, and the world-weariness of a very 1990s worldview.

The record is in fact a concept album with the central theme being the corrosive effects of religion, in this case Christianity. You wouldn’t get that immediately from the lush vocal harmonies of the opening “Hush,” but it becomes plain clear on the guitar rocker that follows, “Joining A Fan Club.” In it Sturmer sings with a sneer of “t-shirts and 8x10s” and “holy water and amends.” This carries through to the single “New Mistake” with the key line, “Baptized the baby in whiskey and licorice, what a lovely way…drowning sins in tooth decay.” I could go on to other signature lyrical moments but you get the point. Or maybe you don’t.

For what is, at least 80% of the time, the consummate pop confection with some of the most gorgeous rock music heard in the ’90s (or ’80s, or ’70s) Spilt Milk is an eminently angry record, and that anger seems to come directly from Sturmer. There were points of it on the band’s prior debut Bellybutton (chiefly on the opener “The Man I Used To Be”) but the individual moments were dispersed enough so that the overall effect was cheerful and sunny mostly. On Spilt Milk, Sturmer isn’t just singing. He’s exorcising demons.

Taken into the context of the times it may not be hard to see why. The 1980s were rife with sex scandals from prominent televangelists who regularly indulged in their own first, favorite commandment, “Do unto others but don’t get caught.” This double-mindedness was, to the majority, appalling and brought down many a ministry congregates assumed were above such sins of the flesh. Therein lies the key problem. Through the judgmentalism, the assertion of piety and superiority, these figures had their flock believe they were something more than human. They were forgiven and washed clean permanently, and they were going to drag the world to heaven’s door, kicking and screaming if need be. To find that they were as culpable as anyone else was an offense.

More offensive was the obscene amount of money these ministries seemed to be raking in. Beyond the megachurches, the weekly broadcasts, the media empires and schools under their corporate wing, they also had theme parks, entertainment complexes, and tax-havens because they were considered a religious organization. Is it any wonder so many took pleasure and satisfaction in seeing these edifices come down? By the ’90s, the assertions that we “won’t get fooled again” were failing. The old TV preachers made way for new TV preachers. Churches weren’t enough after a while. Stadiums were required, and it seemed scandals were brewing all over again. With the first Gulf War thrown into the mix, the concept of American piety and exceptionalism was being used by these modern Elmer Gantry acolytes as justification. It was an amplification of the “Us vs. Them” mentality.

And all of that factors into Spilt Milk, but that is orbital. When one listens to Sturmer, one hears somebody who has been personally wronged. He’s not just incensed — there is a voice of pain underneath the pretty sweetness and the rock theatrics. This is perfectly illustrated by “The Glutton of Sympathy” and “All Is Forgiven,” with the former focusing on someone who seems to have been born to lose, or believes as such, and lives a life accordingly with a broken spirit. The song is so easy on the ears it quickly passes without scrutiny, but Sturmer rises toward the end with a sort of slap in the face, a bracing wake-up if you will, with “Will you never cease to be the glutton of sympathy?” The latter of the two, “All Is Forgiven,” is rage. It is a middle finger to whoever created the complex that holds such “gluttons of sympathy” in its sway, makes them feel small and powerless in order to continue to fleece them. In short, it is a screed against the Victim Factory that religion seems to become to keep the member paying in.

I am a believer, as I’ve stated many times before, but I am not affiliated with a particular branch of Christianity. Indeed I haven’t been to a regular mass in decades, so I might be considered a failed and lapsed Christian by a large majority. I read secular books and listen to secular music, and I often can find the sacred in that which some consider the profane. I make lots of mistakes. For the lust of the laughter of my friends, I have been known to crack jokes I later regret and recant. I’m a Christian but I’m inherently human, and flawed to boot. So it might shock many to find out how much I love this record. “Aren’t you offended they would say those terrible things about Christ?” they might ask me.

My answer is that believers of Christ are called to be as Christ in this world, and therein lies the culmination of the resurrection. And as someone called to be as Christ in this world, what does that mean? That means to not be hoarding money and power into personal empires built upon pearly white Sunday suits. That means to be compassionate to all, even though you might suffer in the process. There is a scripture that is frequently misinterpreted — “Be not a respecter of persons” doesn’t mean disrespect humanity for some bid for pleasing God. It means treat everyone equally, even and especially those you do not understand too well. Even those who look, live, and love differently than you. Christians were called to be includers, not excluders.

The lyrical value of Spilt Milk is that it is one of the clearest statements of how Christianity is perceived by the world, not in the face paint and upside down crosses of black metal, but of what sounds to be an unaffected mind reporting on an insane situation. I’m assuming that the majority of the lyrics for Spilt Milk were from Sturmer, with Manning picking up some of the sunnier songs. It is only an assumption. But what I do believe is one or the other either has been, or knows someone who has been confronted by one of the many wolves in sheep’s clothing. As one sensitive to these matters, I look at the album as a series of warnings, starting with live an honest life so that I never purport to be someone I’m not. I believe, but that doesn’t mean I’m never going to be a jerk, and I’d better recognize where I failed and make it right. I’m not Christ. I’m as screwed up as anyone, but I’m trying to do my part to make it a better place to be.

We live in a world where some churches are little more than disguised hate groups. We attack believers in circular firing squads because their faith is not the exact same flavor as ours. We all believe there’s something holding this universe together, but will kill each other asserting our definition of that power is the only one. For those so entrenched, it may well be “too much, too little, too late” to wake up from the stupor of self-deluded superiority.

In the early 1980s my family started going to a church nearby. There were several reasons for it, but one dominant reason was that, outside of her work my mom had not real friends to call her own anymore. Many had moved or simply stopped communicating, as people often do. And to be honest I could have used a friend too. I was a big kid with extremely low self-esteem who wanted to desperately fit in somewhere. What we experienced was the same sort of disengagement and clique-ism found in the “real world,” the exclusionary behavior the pastor railed against in the pulpit. The women’s group shut her out. I believed if they could turn their back on her, they could do so to anyone, which contradicted so much their own Sunday School was teaching, it screams past hypocrisy into something new and entirely more sickening. The youth group kept me toward the back and shut up as much as possible. This outraged my father but he held in there for awhile. He wanted mom to be a part of something other than home and work life too, and many was the time he seemed to be holding his nose through it.

The final straw was during that last year of attendance. I stopped going and slept in on Sunday. The pastor was raising funds for a new church, a bigger church, and his morning messages became consumed by that goal. There was a sector of the congregation that felt the church as-is was all that was necessary. One morning it all blew up. I wasn’t there for it. I had given it up already, but many lost their urge to attend after the chaos that ensued that day. I have since adopted a state of “the Church of God” is in your heart because the church of man cannot help but be tainted. I hope this somehow makes sense to you. Maybe I’m the one who is wrong, after all.

That is my justification for why I love the album Spilt Milk, even if some of it’s core ideas don’t jibe with mine. Maybe I’m still deluded and I’m just making excuses to listen to what is one of the finest pop-rock recordings of all time. I’ll let you make that judgment on me; others have. Unfortunately we learned about the grandeur of the album too late for it to matter. It did dismally in sales, spawned no significantly charting singles (not for a lack of trying), and added to the weight on the shoulders of the record label Charisma U.S. In the two decades after its release it has become every bit the cult classic it deserves to be, but the band is (seemingly) irrevocably torn apart, like a church with conflicting goals, like a family that can’t abide members being “different from” or “unlike us.” Perfection is, they say, the enemy of the good. It is both a praise and a damnation to list Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk as a perfect album.

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  • King P

    Like yourself, this is probably my favorite disc amongst my formidable pile of media. However, I never did sense any sort of spiritual message. Instead I saw it as a very loose story of the American life cycle – A groovy seventies childhood (Sabrina), romantic dysfunction (All is Forgiven), creative excess (ghost at #1 – Brian Wilson, etc.)
    among other themes.

    The one think that comes to mind when I spin this one is how I wish Andy Sturmer were not so addicted to that sweet easy cartoon money. My Bloody Valentine nearly broke the internet a week ago, I’m sure some new Jellyfish would at least turn a profit.

  • ccountz

    Brilliant commentary about easily one of the best albums of the last 30 years. As a believer (and former pastor) I agree with your assessment of the record. Sturmer sounds almost bitter on, “Ghost at No.One” and for someone not to notice the direct Christian illusions isn’t paying attention, but was just playing it on the way home from my radio gig and it occurred to me how sad it all sounded, even amongst the stunning ear candy . Bravo.