X - Under the Big Black Sun - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

X - Under the Big Black Sun

by Steve Ricciutti Rating:10 Release Date:1982-07-01
X - Under the Big Black Sun
X - Under the Big Black Sun

Like so many bands before them, Los Angeles’ infamous X, went from indie Slash Records to Elektra Records after widespread critical acclaim generated significant buzz. For their major label debut, Under the Big Black Sun, X both stuck to the formula, and added some additional flavors. What emerged is their zenith for me. Despite the accolades heaped on their first two albums, Los Angeles and Wild Gift, both earning spots on many Top 100 lists, the choice for me is this one. This achingly personal ode to death and the end of the fractious relationship between bassist and main songwriter John Doe and vocalist and main poetess/lyricist Exene Cervenka, is a heartbreaking, endearing, and ultimately triumphant record.

Lyrically, the band broadened their perspective. No longer the punk scene’s Raymond Chandler, writing of the squalor and chaos of Los Angeles, where their house was often a center of activity, the band instead looked inward. The lyrics focus on break-ups, death, and the nagging truth that all of the critical fawning had yet to add up to more tangible success (the wry “The Have Nots,” which incorporates a slew of bars and one night stands the band had noted on their endless criss-crossing tours of the states).

Musically, the songs temper the punk brashness and intensity with more melodic sounds. Guitarist Billy Zoom had a background that belied the punk aesthetic. He had played with the likes of rockabilly legend Gene Vincent, as well as stints with Etta James and Big Joe Turner, so he had the unique chops that set X aside from the typical punk band, and they are on full display here. Whether it’s his jazzy phrasing on the haunting “Come Back to Me” or his vibrato-laden dancehall chording on the cover of “Dancing with Tears in my Eyes,” Zoom provides a breadth of musicianship few bands could match. Add in the propulsive jazz-infused drumming of D.J. Bonebrake, whose pounding toms set the album in motion on “The Hungry Wolf,” and you realize that punk is more attitude than musical prowess.

In the end, however, perhaps the album belongs to Exene. The end of her relationship with Doe coupled with her sister’s tragic death in a car crash are the ghosts looming over the proceedings. “Motel Room in my Bed,” “Because I Do,” and “How I Learned My Lesson” are bittersweet, cutting edge poetic journaling set to music. Exene’s droll delivery is the perfect vehicle for her heartbreaking lyrics. On “Motel Room in my Bed,” she laments, “Hotels do that with rubber sheets, so I can’t sleep. Staring at my sheets, or crying on my sheets, or bleeding on the same.”

On the brilliant title track, a song that covers both themes, Cervenka, raised in a devout Catholic house, infuses her poetry with bittersweet religious imagery, “If it isn’t man, it’s death. It’s the same Old Testament. At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping. Where my man extended hung, driven with nails to wood.” No teenage lobotomies here.

“Riding With Mary,” “Dancing with Tears in my Eyes,” the title cut all deal with her sister's death, but perhaps none more emotionally wrenching than “Come Back to Me.” The story of how the band heard the news while on tour is summed up as she mourns, “Playing in Cleveland on a Wednesday night, recovering from the night before. I’m broken and crying in the ladies room and the opening band is banging out their song.”

These are the personal touches that elevate this album for me because it makes it so profoundly accessible, and thus something you come to treasure in a place more private and delicate. It’s the beauty of art defined by a truly remarkable band and it’s why this is one of the greatest albums.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars
  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Steve - love this album and this band. Whenever someone mentions the old MTV, the first thing that pops to mind is always the Hungry Wolf video. I took my son to see them last year on the forty year anniversary tour and couldn't believe how strong of voice they still were. Classic!

  • Sorry for the delay, but thanks, Mark! I first heard X when Ain't Love Grand was released. Saw them a few years later, albeit without Billy Zoom. Met them after and they were really cool and down to earth. There are a lot of people who missed the boat on X.

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