Happy 20th Anniversary to Guster’s third studio album Lost And Gone Forever, originally released September 28, 1999.
Most media coverage of Guster alludes to, or uses as its central premise, how very far the band has come since banging bongos and playing acoustic guitars at Tufts in the nineties. Despite my frustrations with the trope, this piece isn’t that different. After 1999’s Lost And Gone Forever, that part of the band’s identity was, well, lost and gone forever. But for some reason, we’re still talking about it.
As the title suggests, the notion of leaving everything behind is all over this record. “Happier,” which closes many Guster shows to this day and features Adam Gardner and Ryan Miller’s signature layered vocal parts, opens with an invocation to “Say goodbye / lose your friends / make them go / don’t need them around.” “All The Way Up To Heaven” includes a realization that to “stay the way I am today [would] serve to more disaster,” while “So Long” gives us our album title, alluding to a sense of identity that could be abandoned at any moment. “Fa Fa,” which starts out fun and gets more menacing as it progresses laments that you’ll “never be the same again.”
While there had always been a certain amount of darkness on Guster records (see, for example, “Airport Song” from 1997’s Goldfly), this theme of abandonment is a long way away from a band that put a stuffed animal called “Big Friend” on cover of their first album Parachute (1995).
Still, the quirkiness that made Guster who they are is still all over Lost And Gone Forever. The final verse of “Barrel Of A Gun” uses typewriter keys as percussion and it actually sounds good. The theremin part “All The Way Up To Heaven,” played by Phish’s Page McConnell, complements the whistling solos that it’s sandwiched between. This record is all of the good parts of the Guster formula plus the perspective that comes with getting older and working at something for a few years.
But that’s not who they are anymore. Some records get better with age, but Lost And Gone Forever is especially worthy of retrospective consideration because of its obsession with loss. After they reached the peak of their original sound, Guster themselves would never be the same again. Since then, the band has pivoted relentlessly. We had a brilliant indie rock period that peaked with Ganging Up On The Sun (2006) and are now in Guster 3.0, which started with 2014’s Evermotion and reached a beautiful and mature place with 2019’s Look Alive, an album that is just as emotionally fraught as Lost And Gone Forever, but with about half the noise.
The band has insisted, time and again, that there will be no going back to something that sounds like Lost And Gone Forever. What we have to do, then, is think about this record not alongside the things that its lyrics threaten to leave behind, but as the thing that the lyrics threaten to leave behind. Retrospectively, it becomes a record about itself and the people who made it, and their senses of self and artistic vision at the end of the millennium. This is not to say that the record was intended to be read this way, but it sure reads like this now.
“Stay the way I am today [would] serve to more disaster,” takes on a different meaning now. The fear of complacency that has supposedly led to the band’s more recent artistic direction can be traced back to this album—with a knowledge that as this thing was peaking, they walked away—if there had been a mediocre fourth record that sounded like Lost And Gone Forever, Guster might have been toast.
This doesn’t make it any easier—although Lost And Gone Forever does want to jump off the deep end, it isn’t exactly happy about it. Its position seems more along the lines of rejecting the idea that abandoning something—no matter your dedication to it—is a coward’s move. Sometimes, it’s necessary, or even painful. Amid the acoustic guitars and typewriters and whistling solos, there’s serious pain here.
This all comes to a head on “Rainy Day,” a slow, dark romp that reads like the internal battle of someone (or a band) on the verge of this kind of abandonment. One verse is worth quoting in full: “I will just play dumb / I won’t hear a single word that’s said / I will bite my tongue / Never sing another song again / I’m not scared / I’m not scared / Try when my inside’s out / I don’t even try / I know I have seen the best I’ll have.”
Behind these lyrics is an instrumentation that can only be described as a thunderstorm that decided to start a rock band. This rock band, though, doesn’t have a speedy guitar high up in the register filling in between the lyrics, or furiously aggressive drumming. This isn’t a power ballad. It’s still slow, led by Rosenworcel’s hand drums, with long, distorted chords filling in the white space. It’s the final gasp of Guster’s sound lamenting its own destruction.
It had to happen. I’m glad it did. I’m glad that we got “Ruby Falls” and “Farewell” and “Terrified,” that the band found a way to reinvent itself after the thing they started with ran its course. What Lost And Gone Forever teaches us is that the simple fact that you have to make a change doesn’t make it any less painful.