Sean Nelson is 11 hours away from turning 40. His golden Garfunkel curls now feature some graying at the temples. The six-foot-five vocalist/lyricist/actor/ex–Stranger writer/editor arrives at a Pioneer Square coffee shop wearing white horn-rimmed glasses with earbuds dangling from the pocket of his denim jacket. The former Harvey Danger frontman sheepishly admits he was listening to Oingo Boingo on the walk over, blaming his older brother for getting him hooked on that band's spazzy goofball pop when Nelson was living in Southern California. "The songs you hear when you're 12 never go away," he states, correctly.
As a song title from Harvey Danger's excellent 2000 album King James Version puts it, "This Is the Thrilling Conversation You've Been Waiting For." Nelson is a brilliant raconteur who deserves his own talk show. The reason for this convo is the release of Nelson's first true solo album, Make Good Choices, out now on white vinyl via Really Records.
Make Good Choices was written and recorded while Nelson was slaloming through a hectic schedule of acting jobs, playing with the Long Winters, reuniting Harvey Danger and cutting their final album, writing a book about Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark, and doing the Nelson Does Nilsson cover project. Make Good Choices is exemplary big-vocabulary rock, one of those special records that yield a new favorite song with each successive listen. Right now, mine is "Price of Doing Business," which is the quintessence of melodic jauntiness, but spiked with lyrics about a soured relationship, spotlighting Nelson's forte of contrasting bright tunes with thorny scenarios.
LP opener "The World Owes Me a Living (and I Intend to Collect)" is utterly effusive and perhaps the only song ever with a chorus climaxing on the word "wherewithal"—an anthem of frustration and powerlessness, the track reveals Nelson's ingenious skill for arranging vocals and concocting indelible earworms. This talent also animates "Creative Differences" and "Hey, Millicent," imbuing them with concentrated sonic sunshine. Nelson's favorite vocalist is Paul McCartney, and that worship has paid huge dividends.
"[Arranging vocals] is an area I feel confident and ambitious about," Nelson says. "Singing is the main thing for me. I wanted it to be a record where the vocals are right out there. Even though it's very simple in most respects, there are twists and turns in the chords that are there because I felt I had to at least make it a little more interesting. The four songs I did with [Chris] Walla are as good as anything I've ever been a part of."
Make Good Choices' nine-year gestation (it was started in 2003—when Harvey Danger were on hiatus and the Long Winters, with whom Nelson played keyboards and sang harmony vocals in the mid '00s, were in between tours—and finished in 2011) was also due to Nelson's difficulty with self- evaluation. Unlike many musicians, he tends to underestimate his art's worth. "The reason it took so long is that it was just my project," he says. "Lots of people contributed generously to it in great ways, but it wasn't a band, a group effort in that way. I have a gaping blind spot in my own ability to assess my own stuff. For me to have said that this record is done and good and deserves to live in the world required more mental-health counseling than recording sessions. I got the counseling and did the recording sessions [laughs]."
As noted, Nelson possesses a keen knack for writing gloriously uplifting music that competes with skeptical, cynical, and neurotic ideas. Is he constitutionally incapable of writing happy lyrics?
"It's something that some people I've been close to certainly have accused me of. I really like the contrast. A lot of the bands I've loved have a sort of opposition in the words versus the melody and the harmonic and rhythmic life of the music. When I was younger, I understood that it was a trick I could go back to, but it does reflect the way I think about the world. There is no unmitigated joy for long, but all sorrow can be tempered by humor. If you have any sense of short-term history, you know that to just wallow in misery is... in the end, you have to laugh or you will perish. I guess at some point I decided that I didn't want to perish.
"Depression is a real theme in my life," he continues. "Exploring that disjunction is necessary for me. But also, the kind of pop music I love and love to write is the only music I feel fully qualified to make. I don't have a ton of music theory; I couldn't pull off a dirge, because I don't have the skill to do it in such a way that it didn't sound like a punishment to listen to. 'Brooklyn Bridge' is the only slow song on the record, and in a way you could see it as maudlin. But the maudlin-ness is sort of baked into it, so I think it's humorous.
"When you look back at the harshest feelings, it tends to be funny. You don't live in the visceral emotion of it forever. If you do... you're doomed if you keep living like that. You can kind of honor the fact that it hurt at a certain time and then laugh later."
Nelson says that the songs on Make Good Choices are personal, as exemplified by "Creative Differences," in which the titular subject is cited as the crux of every band situation or relationship. "I found that the limitations of friendship became my big theme. It did correspond to the years where the friendships I thought were the most lasting and important crumbled away. I got divorced and wound up in a series of screwy relationships that I thought would be important and great, but in fact were pretty doomed—pre-doomed, I would say. Everything I wrote in that decade seemed to be about that, in one way or another. A lot of the feelings expressed in those songs—I wouldn't say I'm proud to have had those feelings. But I think it's an accurate record of a certain kind of low emotional place that nonetheless is real."
You could probably see this question coming from miles away, but here goes: What's the best choice Nelson has made—and the worst?
Without hesitation, he says, "The worst choice remains not letting Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra accompany Harvey Danger when we played 'Flagpole Sitta' on [David Letterman], because we thought it would seem inauthentic if we did let them play with their massive horn section. These are, like, a couple generations of the best studio musicians alive. And they don't do it for everybody. And we said no, because we thought it would seem uncool to people in Seattle. Honestly."
Best choice? Leaving The Stranger?
"That hole?" Nelson says with a chuckle. "That was a good choice in some ways." Then he gets to the real best choice: "Realizing that satisfaction can only come from within myself. That made it a lot easier not to get hung up on what other people think. It took a long time. That's not to say I'm Mr. Self-Esteem. I still am riddled with self-doubt all the time."
Viewing the circuitous, epic journey to complete Make Good Choices, Nelson muses, "It was funny to me that it was easier for me to reunite [Harvey Danger] and put all our silly demons to rest than it was for me to admit that my record was finished. But the amount of time that went by was necessary. I'm slightly bashful talking about the whole therapy angle to it, but the thing that had to change was not the songs; it was me. Then I did."
This article has been updated since its original publication.