Faith, no more, no less

"Beethoven is my hero," Jeremy Enigk, Sunny Day Real Estate's frontman, says. "I mean, writing a song on his deathbed--that's beautiful to me." He pauses, reflecting on what's placed him on one end of the phone and me on the other. "And that's kind of why I do it: For the music."

That's the music-as-cosmic-savior explanation, anyway, and Enigk's sticking to it. He's been sticking to it since his band broke up in 1995, after the startling success of Diary, its first full-length. That's the year, as the fanzines have it, Enigk dissolved the band because he'd found God and realized his bandmates couldn't measure up, leaving an obtuse, self-titled second album (often called "The Pink Album" for, uh, its pink jacket) to be released posthumously by Sub Pop.

"For me," Enigk says, clarifying his faith's role in the break-up, "that was what gave me the courage to actually say what everybody wanted to do. It was a miserable time, writing The Pink Album; I was terrified that the second album wasn't going to be better than the first."

A legitimate fear, given fans' passionate embrace of Diary. That record became a touchstone for trendwatchers eager to baptize the second-generation emo movement: Bands grabbing the baton from late-'80s Washington, D.C. outfits like Rites of Spring and Embrace who originally spiked punk rock's noisy assault with bare, personal-is-political emotion. Diary influenced countless bands and, intentionally or not, set the stage for a mid-'90s underground phenomenon. Tough stuff to match, that.

But Enigk felt like trying again in 1997, when he reformed Sunny Day Real Estate (sans bassist Nate Mendel, who had defected to Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters) and made How It Feels to Be Something On, a record that cemented the band's legendary status with the emo cognoscenti.

The Rising Tide, the band's just-released fourth album, is the record Enigk's wanted to make for a long time. Produced by veteran engineer Lou Giordano (he of Belly and Sugar records), it's the band's biggest-sounding record to date, swathed in chewy clouds of reverb-drenched, multi-tracked guitars, weeping string sections and, most notably, Enigk's signature vocals.

"I think with our past albums," the singer explains, "due to time constraints and money, there's all kinds of things you want to do but you really don't have time. With this album it was very important for us to take the time to add the color and things we've always wanted."

That color invests Tide's songs with an impressive depth, but it also confirms the prog-rock tag the band's gotten since the second album. Critics have been mentioning Yes for years, and there are moments on the new album when, gulp, Queensryche comes to mind. Enigk shrugs.

"I'm not familiar with Queensryche, so I don't really have an opinion on that. Perhaps it's just the high vocals in some cases," he offers earnestly. Familiar or not, he, guitarist Dan Hoerner, and drummer William Goldsmith have taken the emo genre to its logical conclusion, making unapologetically emotional music that, save for a few lachrymose missteps, speaks of a profoundly personal truth. They've even handled their potential wild card (that would be Enigk's faith) deftly, avoiding DC Talk territory while not skirting the issue, either.

"I think the people that we are, we've always kind of looked within ourselves for our strength," Enigk explains. "I think that's where the spiritualism comes. It's not empty and surface and saying, 'I wanna grab your ass,' even though"--he hesitates, searching for the right way to say what he's going to say--"we all love that part of life."

The record also signals a second--or third, if you're really counting--beginning of sorts for the band: new sound, new producer, new working methodology.

"A good chunk of the album was written as an actual three-piece," Enigk says. "I like to think of it as a triangle." He chuckles. "The writing process is so unbelievably easy now, without the fourth wheel."

It's the band's first record not recorded for Sub Pop, too. Hoerner's been particularly outspoken in the press about the band's souring relationship with the label; last year's barely promoted live set hinted that the distaste was not one-sided. Having fulfilled its contract with the Seattle-based indie, the band went looking for a new home.

"There were a handful of major labels that were interested," Enigk admits, "but it definitely wasn't the way it was in the grunge days, when people were just trying to ride the train that Sub Pop discovered. There was some interest, but I think we were kind of a risky band to some of those labels, because of the breaking up and just the rocky, volatile beginning that we started with."

The three signed with the BMG-distributed Time Bomb Recordings, because, Enigk says, "the people were amazing and we felt that they understood where we were coming from on many different levels. I think they got it."

Whether that's true is anyone's guess, but they did find a company willing to spend money and to gamble that Sunny Day Real Estate will stay together for more than two records this time. For his part, Enigk's confident.

"This is it," he says. "We really want to do this thing now, and we're doing it like we've never really done before. Back in the day, we were just young, and I didn't really know if it was truly what I wanted. But now that I'm coming at it with a little more experience and knowing what the baggage is, it was a conscious decision [to reform the band]. It was something that if I say yes, it had to permanent, because I didn't want it to be based on that volatility and I didn't want to hurt the guys again."

Thinking of Beethoven again, he continues, getting a little worked up. "We believe in it, and we're confident in each other's abilities. The desire is there in all of us, the fire is there, the desire to do this thing for real and to have our names written in the Book of Life." He stops, checking himself, and laughs. "Or time, rather, not life. I think that's the heaven book or some weird thing."

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Mikael Wood