The most destructive force in rock and roll isn’t drugs or booze; it’s ego. It’s ruined more great artists that smack ever could. On his new solo record Make Good Choices, Sean Nelson (formerly of Harvey Danger) has a field day playing around with ideas about those who let ego get the best of them and how it leads to an inability to—you guessed it—make good choices in relationships, both the work and romantic variety.
Nelson is known, predominantly, for his tone. During his time with Harvey Danger he always came off as the bratty smart kid who caused trouble in school—not because he was a malcontent, but because his surrounds weren’t challenging enough to keep him interested. Age has stripped away that petulant edge, but he’s still well versed in sarcasm. (The eye rolls are practically audible.) He makes the most of it, whether his characters are railing against perceived injustice (“The World Owes Me a Living”), feeling ignored and overshadowed (“Creative Differences”), toeing the line between the moral high ground and being jealous of success (“The Price of Doing Business”), or nursing a broken heart (“Brooklyn Bridge”).
Nelson’s instrumentation has also softened with age. There isn’t much rocking out on Make Good Choices. But the arrangements, driven by piano and guitar, are positively lovely and have a breezy air about them, from the artfully restrained guitar riff on “Born Without a Heart” to the nimble-fingered, jaunty piano on “Advance and Retreat.” Nelson gets a songwriting boost from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, who cowrote "Stupid and 25," and Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla, who cowrote and played on four of the album’s tracks.
The record ends on the highest of notes with “Kicking Me Out of the Band,” an encapsulation of everything Nelson does well. His storytelling exposes the bitterness of a drug-fueled rock star whose habits and inflated sense of self get him booted from the band he started with his best friend. Electronic organ lays a simple melody, with instrumentation added as the angst rises. Nelson cheekily narrates how “NME said we were quintessential power pop–meets–rock–meets–folk–meets–punk–meets–alt-country, but with a healthy sense of metal,” and had plans of forming “a supergroup side project…like Velvet Revolver.” It’s a woe-is-my-band song and an appropriate endnote.
Make Good Choices isn’t the album of an aspiring rock star—or a burned-out rocker, for that matter. It’s that of a seasoned vet showing how easily he can spin a song, while taking potshots at the very notion of doing so.