Music has always had strong ties to nostalgia, be it personal or global. Certain songs, albums, and artists transport us through a minefield of emotions deeply rooted in our over-stimulated bodies. It’s why listening to You’d Prefer an Astronaut still makes me relive a 15-year-old decision to purchase a Hum album over Silverchair’s Frogstomp. All my friends had Frogstomp, so why did I need to add to the pile? The true thrill of purchasing music — at least during the death rattle of major labels — was weighing what you wanted against what CDs your friends had. No one had You’d Prefer an Astronaut, and we all loved “Stars,” so the scales were tipped and a love affair that has lasted longer than anything else in my limited lifespan began.
That zebra affixed to the bright green background is an odd palate choice when inviting listeners into the idea of space. It was just one of many curveballs thrown by Hum through the course of the album, one that’s still as fresh as it was in 1995. Despite song titles buoying the album’s proclamation (“Little Dipper,” “The Pod,” and of course cult radio hit “Stars”) and casual flirtations with the definitions of space in Matt Talbott’s lyrics, You’d Prefer an Astronaut was more about the Big Bang of sonic expansion than the garbled lines of alternative-era prose. The press of the time was quick to lump Hum in with the rest of the Northern Illinois (specifically Chicago), but how lazy and ignorant were they?
Fifteen years later, You’d Prefer an Astronaut feels as if it should be nestled in retail bins alongside Funeral, You Forgot It in People, and Sung Tongs. In a musical generation that celebrates the tiniest difference in design, You’d Prefer an Astronaut continues to boast nine tracks of innovative tunings, odd time signatures, and challenging song lengths. The opening triptych of “Little Dipper,” “The Pod,” and “Stars” is slightly at odds with this claim, as each is built on straight-ahead alternative riffage, but as layers are slowly peeled away with each listen, the art of discovery begins. The seemingly simple melodies begin to morph into dynamically textured experiments. Slight tweaks in tempo and timbre are sprinkled throughout, especially as “The Pod” transitions from its angry tone into an upbeat acoustic outro. “Stars” also relies on shifting dynamics; from its quiet, lazy strums to a punchy guitar assault and back to its dreamy ending. As far as singles go, none do more to represent just how deep You’d Prefer an Astronaut delves despite its seemingly bare-bones approach.
The back half of You’d Prefer an Astronaut was their playground. From the beginning of “Why I Like the Robins” to the fade out of “Songs of Farewell and Departure,” the many swells of style and substance flourish away from the scrutiny of the alternative era’s demand for a rocking first half. “I’d Like Your Hair Long,” which was Astronaut’s first single, proves to be the band’s finest moment. The lackadaisical pickings mixed with a crunchy guitar melody alongside Bryan St. Pere’s hard hitting fills and syncopated cymbal crashes put the track on an island all its own. It wasn’t punk enough; it was too far out to be of the Alternative Nation mold; and its length didn’t allow for the quick impressions and repeated listens that the mid-90s music scene thrived upon. The lyrics were acerbic — the only link it and much of the album has to the era in which it was created.
You’d Prefer an Astronaut will never be an album for the masses. It’s unwashed, rustic, and odd. But in a police lineup, you’d be quick to pick it out; even amongst a backdrop of band’s that have tightened and perfected the Hum style in the time since, the album still feels unique. At some point, nostalgia wears off and all that’s left is the shell. While memories of standing in a Musicland with the album proudly in hand remain strong, they no longer define what is contained within You’d Prefer an Astronaut. It’s an album that makes new memories with every listen, no matter what label executives and disappointing sales may otherwise have deciphered.