I have already put into print the notion that, for me, Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers is the greatest rock album of all time. The caveat enjoined has to do with sequencing- that Sister Lovers takes its position at the top of the hierarchy only when put together in a certain way. Tracks like "Downs," "For You," and covers of the Kinks and Jerry Lee Lewis need to be dropped, "Nature Boy" slotted between "Holocaust" and "Kangaroo," the album end with "Take Care," etc. The miracle of I-Tunes is that anyone can accomplish this for themselves in 2012. What I want to offer here are some further notes as to what I have noticed about Sister Lovers as I continue to listen to it closely. What I've previously surmised is that the narrative of Sister Lovers involves a love triangle between the unnamed protagonist (Alex Chilton) and two female characters, Lesa and Dana. It now seems signifcant to me that "O, Dana" follows "Femme Fatale"; Dana's position vis a vis Alex Chilton is that of an unattainable femme fatale. The protagonist/ Chilton character is more richly drawn than at first appears; he sings to Dana in "O, Dana," "you seldom know what things are/ do illusions go very far?" He's spiritually and emotionally wise; thus, the logic behind the inclusion of "Nature Boy." One of the mysteries of Sister Lovers thus becomes, why does a protagonist this sensitive, this wise, and who is already involved with the Lesa character, fall for someone as hard and clannish as Dana? The simple answer is that this character has an Achilles' heel: he's a masochist. He likes to be abused.
One pursuant thing which emerges from "Holocaust" is that this protagonist has a tendency to wallow in negative emotions, which Dana and her friends reinforce. He sees through Dana (whose eyes "couldn't hide anything" in "Kangaroo" and who "seldom knows what things are"), but likes to be hurt by her anyway, and ignore Lesa into the bargain, thus incurring Lesa's wrath. The album is resolutely first-person and personal; we never really hear Lesa and Dana's thoughts. Only one song features a significant reversal and recognition at once: "Nighttime." What the lyrics hint at obliquely is that Alex attempts to introduce Lesa to Dana and her clan, and Lesa rejects them out of hand: "get me out of here/ get me out of here/ I hate it here/ get me out of here." The song concludes on a note of devotion to Lesa, and the way the album ends ("Blue Moon" into "Take Care") reinforces this. The album begins and ends with Lesa, and is occupied with Dana and her posse in the middle; that's the structure. If Dana and Lesa are both rejected by the end, it's because the protagonist is too sensitive to extend himself anymore. The aimless drift of "Big Black Car" returns at the end, with more focus and pathos. If the album has one central lyrical message, it's this: to be touched is to be hurt. The resolution isn't particularly comforting, and is manifestly uncompromising. The staunch avant-gardism of the music makes Sister Lovers a package girded against crass commercial success. The irony is that Sister Lovers, musically, is not only melodically rich but melodically stunning. "Holocaust," in particular, would not be so haunting if the melody and chord changes weren't as instantly memorable as anything Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson ever wrote.
Owing to John Fry's engineering, Alex Chilton's voice is high in the mix, and the production values around Sister Lovers are quirky but immaculate nonetheless. There are even a few virtuosic touches like the "walking" bass on "Femme Fatale." Between the density of the lyrics and the richness of the music, there would seem to be few rock albums which Sister Lovers does not dethrone. Recent attempts to do something similar, like the Decemberists' The Hazards of Love, falter around unattractive, melodically unmemorable music, and overblown lyrical conceits. The albums I have recently spoken of as cohesive (Strange Days, Satanic Majesties, Sgt. Pepper, Velvet Underground and Nico) are only semi-cohesive in comparison with Sister Lovers, even if they reflect upon broader, more political themes. Other rock "relationship albums," like Blue, Rumours, and Layla, don't sustain any narrative intensity, or any narrative at all, for that matter; each song is its own entity, even if all the songs are thematically similar. What's interesting about Sister Lovers, other than the fact that the songs "talk back" to each other, is that though it's a cult favorite, not many people have noticed that much to distinguish it. Works of art which grow slowly and quietly often start that way. Sister Lovers does in fact have the rare potential, for a rock album, to keep generating surprises after a hundred listens. It offers a protagonist as Southern, and Gothic, as any created by Faulkner or Carson McCullers. "Holocaust" sounds so claustrophobic partly because it's meant to represent Southern heat- a swampy, sultry, sick, drunken Southern night. Of such nights is Sister Lovers hewn.