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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

With its throwback sound, "Walkin' on the Sun" is far deeper than I realized

It's also just a plain good song from a band that, yes, isn't just a meme.

Today's selection has been stuck in my head for a few days now, but I had a hard time convincing myself to write about it. Eventually, I realized that the same thing that was holding me back could be a great premise with which I can introduce the song:

Ladies and gentlemen, Smash Mouth are not simply a meme band.

They also aren't simply the Shrek band either. Or at least they weren't when they released their debut album, Fush Yu Mang, in 1997. (Shrek was released four years later.)

Fush Yu Mang has a lot of interesting tracks, exploring a variety of sounds within an alt rock and punk framework. The record's standout track is the band's debut single, "Walkin' on the Sun." It's a blast of psychedelic soul-inspired alt with an instrumental that would have sounded at home in 1967, but Steve Harwell's distinctive, snarly vocals ground the song in the turn of the millennium.

There are some songs that just sound like they fit their title from the get-go, and "Walkin' on the Sun" is one of them. From Kevin Coleman and Eric Valentine's light percussion work on bongos and cymbals, to Paul De Lisle's thirds on bass and Greg Camp's filling out of the chords on guitar, the song gives off the feeling of a hot summer's day to me. Michael Klooster's keyboard work only augments this feeling, especially on the lead synth he uses for his solo.

I think the summery feeling is furthered by the song's 60s and 70s leanings. There's something about music from that era, especially on the more psychedelic side, that unmistakably sounds like summer to me. After listening to a number of songs from that era as well as "Walkin' on the Sun," I've realized that I get that feeling from the combination of certain instruments' tones, as described above, as well as the general feeling of reverie and getaway that I get from track of that ilk. Especially now, in the throes of winter — not that it's particularly cold, but more that school has picked up and I have less time on my hands than I did before — the getaway I think of tends to be associated with summer.

This talk of getting away brings me to the song's lyrics, because Steve Harwell's verses give off a similar feeling. He'd like to not have to worry about it all, "buy the world a toke / And teach the world to sing in perfect harmony"...but the world doesn't work like that anymore, if it ever really did in the first place. Greg Camp wrote the song in response to the Rodney King riots of 1992, channeling his desire for the world to just get along despite it looking impossible to do so. Meanwhile, the second verse is more centered in critiquing the nature of fads and consumerism. Its discussion of "Twenty-five years ago" and subsequent criticism of the younger generation — "And their kids were hippie chicks, all hypocrites / Because fashion is smashing the true meaning of it" — appears to contrast the honest nature of the original Woodstock festival in 1969 with the cashing-in of Woodstock '94, which never captured that same spirit. (Imagine how biting their critique would have been after Woodstock '99... *shudders*)

The chorus stretches this consumer critique further, as the band folds in their cynicism around, quoth Camp, "a planet on fire," something I hear manifest as anxiety around climate change. "So don't delay, act now / Supplies are running out" is an excellent sarcastic use of marketing clichés, but it can also be read as commenting on the drying up of natural resources. In following it up with "there may be a tomorrow / But if the offer's shunned / You might as well be walkin' on the sun," Smash Mouth present an opportunity for the world to save itself using the same language as ads do to get through to people. It's only once I could read the chorus in this way that the song really came together for me. Of course it sounds like it's hot — the world is on fire in a literal sense as well as figurative. We still have time to change things and avoid walkin' on the sun, but the odds are getting slimmer and slimmer.

So there's your surprising dose of popular music philosophy for the day, eh? I love being able to dig into songs like this, especially when it's got a sound I already like. "Walkin' on the Sun" is a late 90s gem I feel gets lost in the mix a lot, between other songs being more popular and what Smash Mouth is known for, and I'm glad I finally convinced myself to give it the time it deserves.


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