On First Listen
Alexander O’Neal - Hearsay



on First Listen is a regular column that forces Stylus Magazine’s regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.


Let me confess this: two of my favorite bands when I was growing up in the '80s were Bon Jovi and Poison. In 1986, I was unquestionably blasting Slippery When Wet and Look What the Cat Dragged In, two of my all-time pre-pubescent favorites, and if I heard anything by Alexander O'Neal on the radio, I'd have said, "Turn that shit off, mommy!" or something similar. I had a fundamental knowledge: guitars were good and Prince was a freak who liked his own butt. Anyone vaguely in that genre of music (whatever it was) was lame.

Things change. Three years later, Bobby Brown and Digital Underground would be driving the junior high parties, and I taught myself to like it enough. No guitars, but I could shuffle around to it. Twenty years later, Jon Bon Jovi and I have hair-lengths that are rapidly approaching each other, but musical tastes that are steadily diverging. Now I'm open to anything, except watching CC DeVille on The Surreal Life.

Memory doesn't change. Faulkner said it "believes before knowing remembers," which explains why I couldn't get into Alexander O'Neal's Hearsay even before I could comprehend what it was (memory also knows I remember being a bookworm even then). The sound of this record is the static of turning the radio; I was natured and nurtured into resisting this sound. I loved Michael Jackson, but couldn't deal with Janet. I tried for a bit to pretend blank-slate objectivity with this record, but my chalkboard's crowded (and the writing still runs uphill, sorry Mrs. Pyle). Hearsay doesn't separate itself from everything I wouldn't listen to when it came out.

So this, I admit took me three listens to get to:

The party-scene skits suggest a party album, yet the tracks express remorse, anger, longing (so more party-like than most party raps). O'Neal's vocals are full and expressive (much like Poison's hair, come to think of it), and a good fit for Jam & Lewis's crisp production. In the end, though, the album really only stands on a run of three songs: "The Lovers," "Fake," and "Criticize." The middle number's a classic, the peak of the party. The album chats and gossips and sips Kool-Aid up until this point, and slowly decides that, yet again, it's not getting its first kiss, and goes home.

Rumor has it that some people will tell you that Hearsay is a masterpiece. But my parents dressed me funny and sent me to this party and I just didn't get it. I mean, I had a good time, but I didn't know most of the people there, and I only danced a little, when I convinced myself it would be fun, and again when it actually was. But looking back, I can't really remember this one apart from any of the countless Saturday nights spent briefly talking about girls and then disappearing to the basketball hoop outside and wondering why the sweaty kid wasn't getting any (and only sort of sure of what "any" was).


By: Justin Cober-Lake
Published on: 2006-04-19
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