I’ve heard many different viewpoints on Big Star’s In Space and I’d like to offer my own spin on it. This, the final studio album from the band, is as much a part of the Big Star canon/legend/legacy as any of the other three albums. It’s Big Star – it has the two key components, Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton; it was recorded at Ardent Studios and it has those magic moments that only a Big Star album could offer up – glorious harmonies and hooks wrapping around classic, structured melodies. I don’t subscribe to the notion that this wasn’t the band at their best – every album had a different line-up; there hadn’t been a “new album” from Big Star since 1978 (when Third was finally released); what exactly constitutes “a Big Star album”? Each of the four Big Star studio releases all sound different – save for Alex Chilton’s singing – and this is as fine an album as any. It’s different; it’s supposed to be. This was Big Star in 2005 – twelve years after Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton would team up with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies to resurrect Big Star for one gig – and wind up together, intermittently, over the next eighteen years – the longest tenured/solid lineup of Big Star.
Originally released by Ryko in September, 2005, it unfortunately didn’t stay very long on the market as Rykodisc ceased trading (and the band hadn’t toured in support of it), but now – once again, thanks to Omnivore Recordings – In Space is available again: on translucent blue vinyl and expanded CD with 6 bonus tracks including “Hot Thing” (previously available on the out-of-print Big Star Story) and 5 previously unissued demos and alternate mixes. Packaging contains liner notes from Jeff Rougvie, the Rykodisc executive who signed Big Star to the Ryko deal, original album co-producer/engineer Jeff Powell (who also cut the new vinyl), assistant Ardent engineer Adam Hill, and of course, Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, and Jody Stephens.
But let’s start getting to the direct point here: the music on this album. “Best Chance” is pure, on-the-one melody (with hints of country), shimmering harmonies and as perfect a pop song Big Star ever created. Jody Stephens’ vocals fit the warmth and joyful nature of the track; it’s easily the centerpiece of this album, for my money. One listen and you can imagine hearing it coming out of car radios. It really is an instant classic for the ages. Close to that is Stephens and Auer’s buoyant “February’s Quiet” – not dissimilar in structure to “Best Chance” – and equal in its sweetness of message, but it’s Chilton’s vocal delivery that has that mischievous, almost wry tone. While those two are completely in my psyche because they’re quintessentially Big Star, the surprise/eye-opener in “Turn My Back On The Sun”. It’s the perfect hybrid of The Beach Boys and The Beatles – Jody’s drums sound like Ringo’s with the rhythms used on “Getting Better”; the keyboards and vocals all sound like more of Brian Wilson’s Smile outtakes. And it’s simply a stunner. The crunchy, slightly off-kilter sound of “Dony” is a very satisfying way to open the album, reintroducing us to old friends (Stephens and Chilton) and new (Auer and Stringfellow) and the delicate yet slightly sinister “Lady Sweet” is a nice, tempered mood piece that is easily comparable with any of the slower tracks from Big Star’s earlier incarnation.
No, this album doesn’t have the finely-tuned precision of #1 Record, the sonic and textural brilliance of Radio City or the experimental chaos that makes up the majority of Third. It has its own thing; a mixture of being of its time and moment and being a new phase. On those merits, it stands very nicely as being a vital piece of the Big Star puzzle.
In Space will be re-released on Friday, October 25th, 2019