In Space: Re-evaluating Alex Chilton’s Swan song, 15 years On 

Ten years ago this week, Alex Chilton unexpectedly shuffled off this mortal coil without fanfare or farewell. And though it happened in his adopted home of New Orleans, the repercussions were felt deeply here in Memphis. In one impromptu memorial, only days after his death, a show at South by Southwest by the reconstituted Big Star morphed into a tribute show to Chilton. A collection of celebrities sang Chilton's songs with the three remaining members of what was now Big Star: Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, and original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens. That lineup, first assembled in 1993 for a concert in Columbia, Missouri, and playing sporadically into the 21st century, was thus one of Chilton's primary living legacies.

It's significant, then, that the only studio album that version of Big Star recorded, 2005's In Space, was the singer/songwriter's last release of new material. And yet the record is rarely celebrated as such. Ironically, given Chilton's own disdain for the original group he helped found, many reviews focused on how In Space failed to live up to the Big Star of yore. "They sound more like the countless Big Star followers than Big Star," went the review in Pitchfork.

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Now, with Omnivore Recordings' rerelease of the album late last year, and having cast aside any expectations that "Big Star" sounds like Big Star, we can take a clearer look at the album for what it is: the swan song of one of Memphis' most mercurial musical geniuses.

Of course, In Space is not just an Alex Chilton record, and, while it's hard to tease out who wrote what (many songs are credited to the whole band), there are at least four on which Chilton is not the lead singer. While these are finely crafted tunes, the Pitchfork critique of the album does ring a bit true here.

While Jody Stephens has an evocative, vulnerable voice, it must be said that Chilton has them all beat when it comes to a vocal character that's equally unique and expressive. And if you line up only the Chilton-sung tracks in a playlist, In Space is almost convincing as the last chapter of Big Star. It's even more convincing as the last great Alex Chilton EP.

From that perspective, album opener "Dony" marks a new stage in Chilton's latter-day recordings. Notably, it started with an idea by Auer, but, as Auer writes in the reissue's liner notes, it "was as close to a true collaboration with Alex as I ever got." It sports many trademarks from Chilton's post-Feudalist Tarts period, like oblique chords contrasting with stabbing guitar lines and jazz saxophone, but to these it adds more of a chooglin' rock orientation (mid-tempo rock songs being mostly absent from his New Orleans era). The rich vocal harmonies (which he also avoided on his solo records) are a nice surprise in this context.

Furthermore, the "Chilton EP" conceit helps make sense of the most striking outlier on the record, "Love Revolution." In the Big Star universe, a semi-disco, light funk track seems wholly out of place. But in the context of Chilton's solo career, it's of a piece with his love of '70s pop like Michael Jackson's Off the Wall. The same is true of the band's version of Georg Muffat's "Aria, Largo," which makes no sense in the Big Star narrative but is quite in keeping with Chilton's version of "Gavotte" by J.S. Bach, arranged for solo guitar on the Clichés album, or the arrangement of Chopin's "Funeral March" on A Man Called Destruction.

Other tunes here are quite in keeping with the Chilton solo universe, including the cover of "Mine Exclusively" by the Olympics, the R&B grooves of "A Whole New Thing" and "Do You Wanna Make It," and '60s groove of bonus track "Hot Thing," never released before the new Omnivore edition.

But, saving the best for last, the spare-but-complex "Hung Up On Summer" takes the cake. Echoing Chilton's ongoing love of Beach Boys, it also sports angular chords and chromatic fills that evoke spy jazz. It's a true departure from the territory he staked out as a solo artist, but a logical evolution from that place; and as such, it serves as the best way to remember this iconoclastic artist who never stopped reinventing himself, right up to the end, under so many guises.

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