Before 1997’s Winter Pageant, the Softies had done a major national tour, playing several dozen dates with Elliott Smith. The result, perhaps, was a crisper sound that brought just the hint of treble-driven aggression. And Winter Pageant is a darker record than its predecessor. Look at the song titles: “Pack Your Things And Go,” “So Sad,” “Over,” “No One At All” — the opening tracks might as well be a Dashboard Confessional EP.
But as always, the band cushions the blows for us. “Pack Your Things and Go” sparkles with mallet percussion (a first) and smiling major-key harmonies — that the chorus goes, “Just when I need you/you pack your things and go,” is the sort of contrast that was now the band’s signature. But the album also offers “Excellent,” one of the group’s sweetest love songs: “You say that nothing is better than this/I feel the same and let you know with each kiss/and I love you,” Melberg sings, with the music and lyrical mood aligning in a Softies moment as rare as a solar eclipse. Yet the emotional color never reaches complete brightness: listen to Melberg’s voice, the way she quivers and hesitates. She wants to believe. Perhaps she does. But something still nags.
She addresses this in the next song, “My Foolish Way”: “I’ll never never/ever ever again/disbelieve when/you say, you love my foolish way.” The music is apologetic. It’s like the scene at the end of the romantic comedy, with the big speech delivered and the two leads on the verge of devouring each other’s faces. They get there in the next track, “The Best Days,” but the music still carries an undercurrent of sadness, knowing the best days aren’t meant to last. The Softies never take their love for granted.
It’s these emotional layers that makes these songs so endlessly meaningful; there’s never a time when Winter Pageant won’t launch fresh feelings. It’s become my favorite Softies album over the years: track-for-track, it’s more consistent than It’s Love, and not as frostily broken-hearted as Holiday In Rhode Island would be, but to compare the trio is like looking for flaws in a row of Tiffany’s diamonds. Of all the band’s albums, Winter Pageant comes closest to offering a single conceptual arc: the death of a love affair, the birth of a new one, and the sad end it can’t help but reach, with someone “still wearing my ring/I stopped wearing yours.” Your interpretations may vary, and there’s evidence that the songs are about several different people rather than one or two subjects. The shift from “Tracks and Tunnels” to “Excellent,” for one, is likely too broad an emotional swing to make them directly connected. But this is part of the beauty of the Softies, from whose music you can take what you may.
Before we go, press play on “Pack Your Things and Go” again. Put your headphones on. Listen to Rose and Jen singing the hell out of that (exquisitely soft, 800 thread count) hook. Right?! You should probably queue up the rest.