Listening to the scant amount of material recorded by the Seattle glam-punk act Mother Love Bone can often trigger feelings of, “What if?” What if, instead of passing away of a heroin overdose shortly before the release of his band’s debut album, the grandiose Apple, lead singer Andrew Wood had lived? Would the band’s gritty, yet achingly vulnerable take on arena rock have supercharged a cultural movement toward glitter eye shadow and platform boots? Would pleather have taken the place of flannel? Would Eddie Vedder still be surfing?
Mother Love Bone’s music existed on a precipice between the larger-than-life hard rock that was just starting to fall out of favor in 1990 and the bleaker, more low-end-heavy music that would eventually be dubbed “grunge.” But the catalytic factor was Wood, a self-proclaimed disciple of Freddie Mercury and Marc Bolan who laid all his romantic dreams — of grandeur on the stage and in the bedroom, of meeting a woman who’s “just like me, only beautiful” — absolutely bare in a way that, at its best, remains absolutely unnerving even on multiple listens.
To be fair, Wood was backed by a top-notch band that helped drive along his vision: Bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard, late of the legendary Green River and later of the grunge-era icons Pearl Jam, helped lay the foundation, and squealing solos by Bruce Fairweather added the requisite amount of flash. (A live version of “I’m In Love With My Car” floating around proves that Wood’s dreams of being Freddie Mercury Mach II would have been ably assisted by his bandmates.) Songs like the chugging “Heartshine” and the stormy “Mr. Danny Boy” stalk and preen, with Wood’s slightly nasal vocals exhorting the audience to “value love supreme”; at his best, his frontman style was not unlike that of a particularly exhortative street preacher, someone encouraging as many followers as he possibly could to follow him to other astral planes.
“Capricorn Sister” shows the band at its apex, with Wood’s vocals multitracked in such a way that it sounds like his subconscious-inspired rantings are being beamed in from space while a trashy, wahing lead guitar skulks around in the background. (Note that the track also represents one of the few times in the history of rock when a band shouting out its own name actually works; this is probably because of the chaotic glee inherent in the track, as shown by liberal use of the wah pedal and Wood, at one point, letting loose a cackle.)
The posthumous collection encompasses Apple and the bulk of the 1989 EP Shine, which has slightly rougher production (not to mention a Ricky Ricardo imitation from Wood). It closes with the two-part epic “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns,” which is probably the band’s most well-known composition thanks to Cameron Crowe’s tendency to include it on his films’ soundtracks and Pearl Jam’s live versions; it’s a resigned ode to romance, one that sings of “my kind of love/ the kind that moves on/ the kind that leaves me alone” as it builds to its climax with a big old jam session, the kind that could stretch out for days. That it has to end eventually is, of course, inevitable; that Mother Love Bone’s career came to the premature close that it did, though, remains sad to this day.