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Jeremy Enigk - Return of the Frog Queen Music Album Reviews

Jeremy Enigk - Return of the Frog Queen Music Album Reviews
The Sunny Day Real Estate leader's 1996 solo debut is often viewed through the prism of his Christian rebirth. Sub Pop's reissue reveals how its orchestral grandeur helped shape indie rock's future.

In the annals of rock music's early flirtations with the internet, an incident from the career of Sunny Day Real Estate stands as prophetic of the echo chamber we know today. In December 1994, the band's frontman, Jeremy Enigk, responded to rumors of an imminent breakup by posting an open letter. While SDRE were being celebrated as the best thing to hit the Seattle scene since grunge, Enigk was coming out as a born-again Christian—and the words he used in dropping that bombshell left a mark as indelible as his band's emo masterpiece, Diary on his career.

“Jesus isn’t anything that I want to compromise with, for He is far more important then [sic] this music, financial security, or popularity could ever be,” Enigk wrote. “So the idea of breaking up has been talked about." The Jesus stuff stuck with fans and the press alike, and speculation that it was the reason for SDRE’s split—just months after the letter and more than half a year before the release of their second album—dominated the rumor mill. Over the years, this collective obsession with Enigk’s faith has drowned out everything else he’s said about his mental state in the mid-’90s. “It’s not that I was unhappy back then," he reflected in 2006, "but I definitely was a younger man… reaching for the unknown, I guess, trying to find my place." That quest defines his peculiar 1996 solo debut, Return of the Frog Queen, an album that finds a spiritually awakened Enigk summoning the courage to reach beyond the blunt, soul-baring music SDRE had released and toward thematic grandeur his bandmates weren't yet prepared to grasp.

Christianity was never why Enigk left the band; it was how he began his journey of self-discovery. And Frog Queen—with its half-baked mysticism, charming introspection, and lofty musical ambitions—was the first milestone. Any celebrations of faith or a higher power were largely unrecognizable as such. "Songs that I’ve written about God, I am singing about in a language of my own heart, not one of an organized structure," Enigk once explained. The lyrics on Frog Queen have a poetic bent; the rhapsodic, soul-searching verses of “Explain” seem designed to stick in the subconscious. But some of the other songs scan as nonsense.

Written and recorded around the time of SDRE’s disbandment, the album exchanged the increasingly anachronistic sound of a rock band splitting the difference between Rites of Spring and U2 for timeless influences like Neil Young, Nick Drake, and Red House Painters. Acoustic guitar waltzes and intimate, unhurried musings replaced stark loud-quiet contrasts. A 21-piece orchestra filled a background once occupied by reverb and delay pedals. And production by Greg Williamson, who would go on to produce SDRE's transcendent comeback record How It Feels to Be Something On, gave Enigk's wispy croon enough space to expand and contract at will.

If Frog Queen was, on some level, a message to his former (and future) bandmates, the takeaway seemed to be, "It's not you—it's me." Yet the album feels anchored to the foundation of SDRE. Soft, swaying ballads like "Abegail Anne" and downtrodden odes like "Call Me Steam" are well suited to composer Mark Nichols' delicate arrangements, but Enigk's version of chamber pop still employs plenty of the vocal distortion and guitar pounding for which his band was known. At its best—from the quiet ache of "Lewis Hollow" to the anthemic splendor of "Shade and the Black Heart"—Frog Queen sounds like the unplugged record SDRE never made.

In less successful moments, the album reflects the limitations of a young songwriter deliberately leaving his comfort zone. "Carnival" is a strange combination of boilerplate guitar chords, overproduced vocals, and disorienting orchestral motifs. The plodding "Lizard" oversells its awkward verses, then overshoots the emotional mark during its brief crescendo, aiming for drama but delivering histrionics.

Frog Queen made an impression on those who heard it upon its initial release, in July of '96. CMJ described it as mysterious, enchanting, and “purely spiritual,” while otherspraised its originality. Sebadoh's Lou Barlow called it his favorite album of the year. But it didn't sell so well at first—at least not compared to SDRE releases—and wasn’t repressed. Instead, it became a cult classic and a footnote to Enigk’s long career, often mentioned in the samesentence as bassist Nate Mendel's departure to join the Foo Fighters or Hoerner’s move to a farm in rural Washington. Like many relics of pre-Web 2.0 indie rock, Frog Queen remained an underground favorite, its mythos proliferating through mix CDs, AIM away messages, and local scene forums.

Spotify curators and YouTube influencers may not have been clamoring for Sub Pop’s new reissue of the album, but its long absence from the cultural conversation has only made the experience of discovering or revisiting it more powerful. An record whose trackable influence seems lost to the archives of the Wayback Machine, Frog Queen helped define a sound that became ubiquitous in indie rock for years following its release. The rough-edged perfection of “Explain” is bound to speak to Neutral Milk Hotel cultists who pored over In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Fans of Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House will surely recognize its predecessor in the pastoral folk-pop, sparse orchestration, and simple studio flourishes of "Call Me Steam" and "Return of the Frog Queen.” Although it doesn’t reach the heights of SDRE’s greatest albums, Enigk's labor of love deserves to live on—not just as a turning point in his life, but as an inspiration to younger risk-takers looking to make deeply personal, unabashedly flawed music of their own.

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