The strain of alt-rock anhedonia that runs from the Replacements '"The words I thought I brought I left behind/ Well, never mind" to Nirvana's "Oh well, whatever, never mind" actually dates as far back as the "I loved you/ Well, never mind" of Big Star's "September Gurls." But "September Gurls" was also the sound of a band aiming squarely at the pop charts. Two albums later, the indifference that "never mind" hinted at had turned genuine — and painful. Big Star's first two albums were tremendous critical successes, but the band's record company failed to distribute them and neither sold more than a few thousand copies. Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers was never properly released at all: Recorded in 1974, but never completed, it floated around in bowdlerized, semi-official form until 1992, when Rykodisc assembled it into something approaching a final state.
Third/Sister Lovers is also Big Star's greatest record — a brutally honest portrait of a band (and that band's frontman, Alex Chilton) in bad decline. Chilton wrote "O, Dana" for a girl he fell in love with, followed around for a while, but never really talked to: The lines echo fragments of the conversations he'd overheard, while the music moves from slow crescendo to quick collapse. He wrote "Jesus Christ" by turning pages in the Broadman Hymnal and taking a line from every page, and rewrote the swirling "Stroke It Noel" at the last moment, when a friend's string quartet showed up, unannounced, at the studio.
And yet there's nothing haphazard about the compositions, which are ethereal but never surreal. On the album's centerpiece, "Dream Lover," Chilton stretches the words out until it becomes impossible to tell if the woman he's singing about is the eponymous dream lover, or the kind of lover you only meet in dreams, and the coupling of ambiguity and passion becomes the perfect mirror of the unraveling relationships each of us have known. Every one of these songs is as delicate as spun glass, and as cutting, and the album itself is a wrenching, willowy wonder.