Mostly remembered as a one-hit wonder of the grunge-lite variety, San Francisco-based 4 Non Blondes was, briefly but magnificently, one of the early 90s’ finest bands, their lone album (1992’s Bigger, Better, Faster, More!) remaining a mini-masterpiece of the era. “What’s Up?” might’ve suffered from overexposure (and still does, on many retro-oriented radio stations), but it also serves as a brassy anthem of Gen-X angst; other tracks toy with blues and funk riffs while the lyrics discuss dark themes of alienation, depression, and drugs.
Oh, the drugs. Bigger, Better is, at its core, all about drug use and misuse, perhaps a reaction to the firing of drummer Wanda Day (who died of an overdose in 1997), perhaps a bit of autobiography from lead singer Linda Perry and guitarist Shaunna Hall, who between them wrote or co-wrote the album’s eleven songs. The title of Hall’s “Morphine and Chocolate” speaks for itself, while the Hall/Perry collaboration “Spaceman” (the follow-up single to “What’s Up?” which, sadly, flopped on the charts, despite being the better track) continues a theme of escape through pharmaceuticals.
Then there is the album’s best song, “Drifting.” Like “Spaceman,” Perry’s “Drifting” is about getting stoned to forget the miseries of real life, but its lyrics can be molded to other interpretations as well. For years, a literal reading of the lyric “dropped another pill just to kill me” led me to assume the song was describing attempted suicide and the epic emotional depths that surround it; the pills mentioned throughout could very well be antidepressants, prescribed or otherwise. There’s certainly an unbearable ache to the refrain “Look at me, I’m a tangled puppet / I might be a mess but I sure can survive,” Perry’s pained vocals emphasizing the self-pity.
Or it could just be about getting high.
Either way, it’s a heartbreaking song, a self-portrait of a soul in tatters. The most touching moment comes in the middle section, with the lines “Hand me your eyes / I will put them in front of mine / You’ll see a little better.” It’s not just the thought of “you don’t know how I feel,” it’s the added sting that the narrator is desperately hoping someone will understand her yet knowing no one can, even if they could somehow take her point of view (“you won’t expect the illusion you’ll see”).
The performance itself is restrained – Perry’s voice is accompanied by a lone acoustic guitar and a cello, with a violin joining midway through. All sound like they half want to cry, half want to scream, resulting in a beautiful sort of grief.
4 Non Blondes delivered a handful of cover songs to various movie soundtracks and compilation albums of the day, then disbanded before their second album was completed. (The band never really stood a chance: Hall was fired midway through the first album’s production; replacement guitarist Roger Rocha left the group before work began on the follow-up; Perry grew tired of the “What’s Up?” sound while still on the road and yearned for more restrained vocal material.) Several of the songs that would’ve appeared on that sophomore effort wound up on Perry’s solo debut, the brilliant, overlooked In Flight. She spent the past decade emerging as an unlikely songwriter/producer for such pop acts as Pink, Christina Aguilera, and Gwen Stefani.