You don't often hear a musician admit that the critics have a point.
Billy Joel used to read his negative reviews aloud during concerts and then rip them up. Michael Bolton recently said the critics who complain that he's lacking in soul should submit themselves to ear surgery. Which is why it's so unusual to hear singer of the York band Live say the people who thought his band's major-label debut was too obvious and earnest were probably right.
"It's easy to make a record like "Mental Jewelry,' as far as I'm concerned," Kowalczyk said. "If I was only a record buyer or a listener, I probably wouldn't have liked it."
In a disarmingly candid interview, 21-year-old Kowalczyk took just about every opportunity available to criticize "Mental Jewelry," his band's initial effort for Radioactive/MCA. Kowalczyk recorded the album in early 1991 with band mates Chad Taylor on guitar, Pat Dahlheimer on bass and Chad Gracey on drums.
"The one error of "Mental Jewelry' on my end," Kowalczyk said, "was I had developed into a character, almost a caricature of a person, who was overstating everything just for the sake of making an impact. "Not that I didn't believe in what I said, but making an impact and being heard and not letting the audience forget about us was my primary goal, and the expression of the music was kind of put on the back burner.
That attitude was driven by Live's determination to get attention and get a major-label deal.
"All we wanted to do was get a record contract and prove ourselves," he said. "That kind of required that force, that impact. But now I think we can afford to turn more inward. We can afford to say that we don't know everything."
Kowalczyk's hindsight criticisms might leave the impression that "Mental Jewelry" was a critical and commercial flop. Not so. The album broke the Top 100 of Billboard's albums chart in its second week of release and earned numerous critical raves.
Entertainment Weekly gave "Mental Jewelry" a B-plus rating. Musician magazine called Live "The first band of rock's next generation" and said "Live doesn't really sound like anyone else. Maybe R.E.M. over a jazz fusion rhythm section, maybe U2 with greater metaphysical distress, come closest as analogies."
But the best reviews came for the band's gripping live performances. In June 1992, The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote: "Occasionally a rock musician appears on the concert scene who can channel fans'energy to create a mesmerizing, explosive experience far beyond the typical show." The reviewer then cited the examples of Jim Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Bono and Kowalczyk. But then there was The New York Daily News, which trashed "Mental Jewelry" for the preachifying of songs like "10,000 Years (Peace is Now)" and "Brothers Unaware."
Kowalczyk said Live has changed its approach for the follow-up album, which the band begins recording in August. It's not such a black-and-white world anymore.
"The lyrics are addressing the same dilemmas in life, or aspects of life, but they're not as pinpointed," he said. "I really feel like on the last record, the lyrics are almost an Exacto knife very succinct, very pointed. Whereas this record has the same creative intensity without becoming too descriptive."
Musically, Live's sound is denser, more intense thanks in part to more electric guitar playing from Kowalczyk, who previously played mostly acoustic. But it's also the result of a year's worth of touring. Anyone who has seen one of the band's recent shows can attest that Live's sound has taken a quantum leap ahead of "Mental Jewelry.
"The band plays with more authority, and the sound is less methodical. New songs like "White, discussion" and "Stage" allow for Live to veer from moments of complete control to moments when the band is only vaguely able to control the chaos. "I love when our band reaches the point when there's barely even music happening," Kowalczyk said, "when we're just barely holding it together."
Kowalczyk said the change in approach had little to do with the critics "maybe subliminally, that might have played a part."
But then he lets on that he was bothered by the way some people reacted to "Mental Jewelry."
"I never said through the whole thing that I was perfect in what I was saying," he said. "I wish I would have expressed that better so people wouldn't have been put off by the strength of the lyrics."
Kowalczyk recently moved into an apartment in Lancaster; Taylor, Dahlheimer and Gracey are living in York with their parents to save money. No, they didn't get rich off of "Mental Jewelry."
"Right now our sales are at 350,000," Kowalczyk said. "A lot of money was spent on promoting the record, so it's been rather hard to make money. We haven't sold enough records to recoup all the money that was spent on us."
Since late last year, when Live wrapped up a world tour to promote "Mental Jewelry," the band has been playing occasional gigs and writing songs for a follow-up album.
Kowalczyk said a lot of those songs will never see the light of day on an album; the band has whittled the list of new songs down to about 15.
"The ones that we kept are the ones that continually grow and get better and we consistently enjoy playing," he said.
The second, as-yet-untitled album is slated tentatively for release in January. Kowalczyk said the band hasn't decided where to record, but San Francisco and Austin, Texas, are possible sites.
And former Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison, who produced "Mental Jewelry," will again be the producer: "He knows how to take a really rough version of a song and make it ready for a record," Kowalczyk said. "He's just a good fifth head to have around."
The band toyed with the idea of going with a different producer for variety, he said, but later decided they wanted the security of working with somebody they know.
"It's not only an important record for us in our career," he said. "It's also important psychologically, because we really want to be happy with it."