If you’ve never before heard Big Star, stop right here, download the #1 Record/Radio City two-fer and Third/Sister Lovers, and take in some of the greatest yet most unjustly unsuccessful rock music of the early-to-mid ’70s or, really, any other era. Lead by former teen singer of the Box Tops (“The Letter”) and future cult star Alex Chilton, Big Star were the bridge between the Beatles, the Byrds and the Who of the mid ’60s and the alternative rock of the future. Young, hugely talented, yet doomed, their music was, through no fault of their own, commercially D.O.A., yet also full of finely articulated life that’s resonated for decades with power-poppers, New Wavers, alt-rockers, and indie connoisseurs.
Nothing Can Hurt Me is the soundtrack of the Big Star documentary of the same name that’s scheduled in select movie theaters beginning in early July. Although all of its songs have appeared elsewhere, all of these versions are previously unreleased. Six are cleaner, more detailed variations on familiar album cuts, created last year for the film by tape archivist Adam Hill and Big Star producer John Fry. Two of Chris Bell’s masterful post-Star solo tracks, “I Am the Cosmos” and “Better Save Yourself,” get the polished mixes they’ve always deserved, and the results are actually harsher and more harrowing because the clarity reveals yet-unheard pain within these well-loved songs.
The rest are alternate, demo, and rough mixes of well-known songs from ’72, ’73 and ’74 that feature slightly different performances and relationships between instruments. Recorded as a three-piece following Bell’s departure after #1 Record, the ’73 demo version of “O My Soul” lacks the keyboard and handclap overdubs and guitar solo that flesh out and elevate the track, but what’s here is in-the-pocket dynamite: Drummer Jody Stephens is particularly explosive.
The collection as a whole emphasizes how totally on this band was during its short life, even as they worked through (and captured on tape) warped psychological states brought about by their escalating personal and financial failure. These guys may’ve encountered obstacles, ones that arguably deepened their art, but they weren’t fuck-ups: No matter what stage the songs are in, from the innocence of “Thirteen” to the thorough despair of “Holocaust,” they’re all emotionally complete. Forty years later, there’s still so much here to love.