Marcy Playground is touring to celebrate 20 years since the launch of their self-titled debut album, released on vinyl for the first time on Record Store Day 2017. The album spawned the band's lone hit, "Sex and Candy," which spent 15 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart, and still gets airplay. The album received mixed reviews, but it deserved better. Fortunately, the odd, catchy misery of John Wozniak's alt-classic rock songs found a devoted audience—but some of us think that MP's actual masterpiece is their woefully underpromoted second album, Shapeshifter (Capitol, 1999).
Let's warp back to a Saturday morning—the best day of the weekend—in early fall 1999. As kids, we'd awaken early on a Saturday to hours of colorful cartoons and giant bowls of sugary cereal—a first taste of independence while our parents slept. In adulthood, Saturday is almost better: a refuge from adult problems, where we can still binge on flickering images and Fruity Pebbles and, if we're lucky, act out Rule 34/Skeletor-on-She-Ra fantasies, sipping Jameson-spiked coffee in the afterglow.
Work bled into this particular Saturday, but my then-side gig writing about music was still new and fun. Sorting through CDs in search of review fodder, I found Shapeshifter. The blickum-blickum drums and roaring guitar of the opening track "It's Saturday" snapped me awake as I proclaimed it a straight-up rip-off of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" until, 10 seconds into the song, Woz started yodeling. Still very familiar with its loud-quiet-loud verse-chorus thing, the song took on a different tone with its titular exclamation, and them yodels. The sun shining through the window, coffee brewing, bacon popping, not that much work and Woz singing, "Go out and play," Saturday euphoria swept me away.
The sleepy acoustic number "America," and its refrain, "Ooo-ooooo, yes, I always wanna be/ riiii-iii-ii-ight here," gave me goosebumps. The jangle-march of the sing-along anthem "Bye Bye" got my blood pumping again, and segued into the spacy raise-your-lighters track, "All the Lights Went Out." Then came "Secret Squirrel," a revved-up jam inspired by a 1960s Saturday-morning favorite, and "Wave Motion Gun" name-checking the late-'70s cartoon Star Blazers. I played air guitar as MP went all Neil Young & Crazy Horse with distorted open chords on "Rebel Sodville." I rode the remaining highs and lows—the archetypical '90s slacker-jam "Sunday Mail," the hickoid rave-up "Pigeon Farm," the somber "Never," the stomping "Love Bug" and psych-folksy closer, "Our Generation"—thinking that I was fully immersed.
After years of repeated listens, I finally really heard Shapeshifter—probably not on a Saturday—and realized I'd missed some stuff. I heard how "It's Saturday" goes from a kid faking sick to an adult facing the consequences of shirking responsibility and good advice. "America" rang differently, as I'd come to question the validity of unconditional patriotism for a country I no longer recognized. "Wave Motion Gun" wasn't about running around going, "pew-pew-pew!" but rather avoiding—and possibly losing—your life through drugs. I should've realized after Marcy Playground, thematic-tonal, musical-lyrical contradictions are what Woz does best.
This shift doesn't ruin the album for me. When you're a kid, you want your cartoons funny, your cereal sweet and your music simple and happy. As an adult, you appreciate things that are more difficult to digest, like conflict and irony. So while Shapeshifter changed for me, it's actually more satisfying. It accurately portrays life, which is an ebb and flow between delight and despair, not an endless string of Saturdays. If it were, we wouldn't know how good those days can be.