One of the multiple upsides of watching Hanson’s re-broadcast of their 5 of 5 concert series (during which they played their way, chronologically, through their five studio albums, from 1997’s Middle of Nowhere to Shout It Out, released this week), was that I got a chance to think about what it is I love about this band. Some perceptions were altered – relatively bland Underneath tracks like Broken Angel and When You’re Gone really came alive for me, and so did Hand In Hand from This Time Around and Blue Sky from The Walk – while other previous assessments held up pretty well. For instance, much as it pains me to say this, the live show of The Walk confirmed my suspicion that it is by far Hanson’s weakest album, while I’ll continue to tout the quality of Middle of Nowhere. The concert performance was flawless, and it gave new life to some of the songs that where either written off (Lucy, a breakup song in which drummer Zac Hanson’s pre-pubescent voice once sounded like an odd fit for the lyrics), or didn’t seem to fit the overall tone of the album, like Look At You. The only real disappoinment of the mega-gig was the This Time Around night, an absolute favorite of mine. Here, the normally flawless Taylor Hanson’s vocals regularly faltered, but even that meant that other songs and performers had the chance to grab the spotlight instead. Hand in Hand was Ike Hanson’s definitive moment to shine, and he seized it.
It was a remarkable five-night experience not because Hanson have been stingy with documenting their live performances before – from the early tour documentaries The Road to Albertane and Tulsa, Tokyo and the Middle of Nowhere to the Underneath Acoustic Live and Live at Filmore DVDs, over the Live from Albertane album to the Live & Electric and the Middle of Nowhere Acoustic fanclub exclusive, they have in fact been very generous – but because it was a chance to share it with Hanson fans all over the world. The international audience was regularly addressed by Taylor on camera, and I could follow the reception on Twitter livestream. For a moment, it felt like the Hanson concert I have long wanted to attend.
Still, I noticed that you could basically divide hardcore Hanson fans (of whom I consider myself one) into two camps. Not to mock fellow Fansons here, but you had those who thought every tune was pitch-perfect, and who took it as an insult, both personally and on the band’s behalf, when someone suggested that the This Time Around performance sounded a little off, or that there were some weak links on The Walk. They are dedicated fans, no doubt, but they seem to suggest that to be a real fan, you have to remain euphoric about absolutely everything they Hanson has ever released or performed. Perhaps not surprisingly, I consider myself part of the other large camp; those who were just as thrilled with the experience, but who came into it with a more open mind about our favorites and the respective strengths and weaknesses of the individual albums. It was a spirited, at times ecstatic debate, and a couple of nights in, I actually started to feel like I mastered the very specific Fansonite cultural code.
That said, there will always be something of a gulf between people like me and another group of fans. The most flashily decicated ones are also those who are most concerned about letting you know that they have been with the band all along. I admire them for their stamina, and I sometimes try to claim the same (in the sense that I did like them back in ’97, I just never said so publicly, and I did want to buy This Time Around in 2000, I was just too wary of my reputation to do so), but I wasn’t. As I’ve written about repeatedly, I fell for Hanson (and for Zac, in particular) back in the Middle of Nowhere days, and I didn’t really come back out swinging for them until they returned with Penny & Me (again, Zac played an important part). I want to be taken seriously as just as dedicated a fan as these incredibly loyal founding mothers and fathers of Fansonism, but in a sense, it’s already too late.
My long absence from the world of Hanson between This Time Around and Underneath, has also shaped how I assess their discography. Underneath, and Penny & Me in particular, has a very special place in my understanding of the band, although song by song, I think both Middle of Nowhere and This Time Around are better pop records. Underneath was an early coming out album, in more than one sense, and a defining moment for me. Allowing myself to embrace that album also meant that I could, at least gradually, embrace not only the feelings I had for Zac, but the general affinity I had for music that was otherwise in danger of being labeled gay-by-association. I’m glad Underneath was my return to Hanson, although I doubt lost out on some great Hanson moments while I was away.
Incidentally, if read in a certain way, the song Voice In The Chorus from the new record can be read as being about those fans who only showed up when all the troubles were behind the band, although it’s really a story of someone who doesn’t was his old girlfriend back (“You passed me by when I was barely hanging on/but you where there when I was doing just fine/(…) You’ll be there waiting when I’m back on top/(…) Tell where you have been all this time”). It’s silly, I know, but kind of entertaining, nonetheless.
The perhaps single best thing I got out of the 5 of 5 concerts, however, was an urge to sit down and make a list of my favorite Hanson songs. The real crossroad in Hanson history may have been the split from Island Def Jam after This Time Around, or the new musical direction the band took on Underneath and The Walk, but in a way, Shout It Out feels like a defining moment, too. In some ways, it marks the return to the joyous aspects of rock music, and more importantly, a successful merger of these two most prominent threads running through their entire catalogue. Therefore, this is as good a time as any to size up their career so far. Agree/disagree? Please sound off in the comments section. This is the list at this very moment:
- Penny & Me
- A Minute Without You
- Runaway Run
- If Only
- Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’
- Sure About It
- Me Myself And I
- I Will Come To You
- Been There Before
- River (Underneath Acoustic Live version, first released on 3 Car Garage, 1997)
- Man From Milwaukee
- In A Way (unreleased)
- Musical Ride
- Every Word I Say (b-side, Penny & Me, included on Live & Electric)
- Strong Enough To Break
- The Walk
- Voice In The Chorus
- A Song To Sing
- I Almost Care (iTunes exclusive)
- Lost Without Each Other
- With You In Your Dreams
- Wish I Was There
- Waiting For This