Twelve Small Steps, One Giant Disappointment (Fat Wreck Chords)
by Tim Den
When drummer Derrick Plourde committed suicide in ’05, his Bad Astronaut (and former Lagwagon) cohort and close friend Joey Cape wrote an entire album called Resolve as both a tribute to his fallen brother and a method of reacting to the tragic news. On it, listeners feel Cape’s emotions burn red hot, having just had to process the event and turn it into music that couldn’t possibly make up for the loss. A year later, the final Bad Astronaut album Twelve Small Steps, One Giant Disappointment attempts to tie up the loose ends, offering a more reflective and comprehensive view than Resolve by including songs written before and after Derrick’s death, as well as the cooling down of anger/sadness that only continued mourning could foster. Much of Resolve‘s reactionary tone is absent from Twelve Small Steps, One Giant Disappointment, replaced by a more tranquil remembrance of a life lived. The muted sadness fits well with Bad Astronaut’s melancholic nature – as Resolve did with Lagwagon’s furiousness – flipping through the pages of moments past, stopping to note significant events. On “Ghostwrite,” “Best Western,” and “Go Humans,” the tone is less personal and more observational of culture and society: Songs that were probably written before Derrick’s passing. On “Beat,” “Stillwater, California,” and “The Thirteenth Step,” it’s obvious that the subject matter is Derrick. By combining the two sides, Twelve Small Steps, One Giant Disappointment is able to capture the entire four-year spectrum between this album and its predecessor, Houston: We Have a Drinking Problem. Just cuz Resolve was all about Derrick’s tragic end doesn’t mean that Bad Astronaut’s last half a decade was all sadness. There was joy, frustration, introspection, and experimentation, all of which is presented here at the end of the band’s journey. Twelve Small Steps, One Giant Disappointment is what a final, took-four-years-to-finish album should sound like. It’s a complete snapshot of Bad Astronaut, as a band, making their final statement.
And, of course, the statement is gorgeous. While a bit more straight-forward than previous Bad Astronaut records, Twelve Small Steps, One Giant Disappointment nonetheless contains some of the best melodies Cape has ever written. If I had a dozen hearts, they’d all be broken by the end of songs such as “Good Morning Night,” “Minus,” and especially the aforementioned “Stillwater, California.” Cape has long perfected the blending of singer/songwriter potency (think Elliott Smith, Elton John, Jose Gonzalez) and power pop dynamics, but I dare say that he’s never sounded more in control of his craft than here. Lyrically, the songs about Derrick contain as many brilliant lines as the ones on Resolve, particularly “Beat,” “One Giant Disappointment,” and “Stillwater, California.” On “Beat,” Cape reflects on his last collaboration with Derrick: “Today, our old construction site is missing everything/you’re missing everything/today, I finished what we started/today, I thought you might be proud/we have recorded your defeat/an album always incomplete.” On “One Giant Disappointment,” he tries to reason with Derrick’s decision: “How am I supposed to feel?/I thought we had an agreement/and real or not I believed it/because always, we ignored your demons… and you wanted out/yeah you, you got out.” And finally, on “Stillwater, California,” Cape tries to comprehend Derrick’s life in the context of their upbringing and hometown: “Hey Derrick lied to you/hey Jason gagged on you/hey Bomer/dogs of the stillwater drown before their small town/and we’re off this week to Johannesburg/Via Wien, Austria/and on to Italy/sometimes it feels like we’ve seen everything/and all of it means nothing/the rooms are all the same/this is my life until I can’t compete… it’s always a stillwater town/hey Derrick, hey Jason, hey Richard/we’ll find a new hell without you.” Seeing as the names mentioned – Derrick, Jason and Bomer of RKL – were all good friends of Cape’s (not to mention other Lagwagon songs about deceased friends, such as “Narrow Straits” and “Leave the Light On”), it’s not hard to imagine the songwriter’s feelings as he looks back on a lifetime of seeming “success” in the music world… but at what cost?
Twelve Small Steps, One Giant Disappointment, full of such moving insights and corresponding moving music, should make Cape and all involved proud. It says everything it needs to say as the curtain slowly drops, bowing gracefully, and with dignity.