In 2010, Jeremy Enigk once again was adrift. His band, Sunny Day Real Estate, had just broken up for the third time, possibly for good, after an unsuccessful attempt to make a new album in the wake of a reunion tour.
“We weren’t a working band,” Enigk explained during a phone interview last week. “We did go into the studio for a couple weeks, but we didn’t really spend that much time developing, or redeveloping, our sound.”
In indie circles, Enigk is a mercurial cult figure, an apt figurehead for a star-crossed band that could be described as the Big Star of ’90s indie, given its haphazard career arc and the consistently beautiful and enduring music the band created in spite of all the hardships. Signed by Sub Pop when Enigk and his bandmates were still in their teens, Sunny Day Real Estate developed an enigmatic mythology almost immediately, shunning most interviews and mysteriously refusing to perform in the state of California, home to several of this country’s most important punk-rock markets, on its early tours. At the center was Enigk, a shy introvert with outsized charisma and an arresting voice capable of soaring from a numb mumble to a pulverizing banshee wail.
In the mid-’90s, Sunny Day Real Estate imploded for the first time in the wake of its 1994 debut, Diary, recognized last year by Rolling Stone as the greatest emo album of all time, in spite of Enigk’s long-standing aversion of the term “emo.” (He prefers “post-hardcore.”) At the time, the breakup was blamed on Enigk’s intense Christian convictions, though in reality Sunny Day Real Estate was pulled apart by the usual interpersonal difficulties that often crop up among young, immature men in rock bands. Sealing the band’s fate was Dave Grohl, who drafted Sunny Day’s rhythm section, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, for his new post-Nirvana group, Foo Fighters. (The group did manage to record an emotionally ravaged sophomore album, 1995’s LP2, before officially disbanding.)
Later in the decade, Sunny Day Real Estate reformed and released two excellent classic rock-indebted albums, 1998’s How It Feels To Be Something On and 2000’s The Rising Tide, that have arguably proven to be even more influential on modern punk and emo acts, taking the adolescent anthems of Diary in more grandiose, Zeppelin-esque directions. But when the band’s label was bankrupted on the eve of a European tour in support of The Rising Tide, Sunny Day Real Estate found itself waylaid and soon dissolved once again.
After Sunny Day’s third crushing setback in 2010 — which Enigk blames on communication issues and his refusal to front a “mail-in band” composed of members with other personal and professional priorities — he embarked on an extended period of introspection, moving to the country and spending time with his family. In 2015, Enigk finally emerged from this hiatus with intentions of re-establishing his solo career, soliciting fans on the artist-patron platform PledgeMusic to support the recording of a new album. Over the course of two years, Enigk worked on the album, which he called Ghosts, with collaborators in Virginia and Spain, wedding grand orchestrations to sweeping, acoustic-based songs that recall the gorgeously eccentric chamber-folk of his 1996 solo debut, Return Of The Frog Queen. It’s an impressive, occasionally awe-inspiring and definitively mature work by an artist still commonly associated with the bottomless angst of teens and 20-somethings.
Released in October, Ghosts would appear poised to be embraced by fans and critics that have championed the recent wave of so-called emo revival bands in the 2010s, given that it’s the first album in eight years by one of the scene’s most iconic artists. But Ghosts has garnered virtually no publicity or even cursory album reviews. It’s possible that the very same people who have pontificated on the greatness of Diary in retrospective emo features don’t even know it exists.
This is due in part to Enigk being a one-man operation these days — he has no manager, no publicist, and no record label. I sent him an email in early November via his Bandcamp page, and to my surprise, he responded while on a tour of intimate living-room shows up and down the west coast.