'Class of 98' Review: Eric Hutchinson's alt-rock ode to his formative years is both cinematic and nostalgic
The genre-defying singer has explored everything from pop, jazz and soul in the past, but this time has focused on the zestful pop-punk of his teenage years for this album
While many of us would look back at 1998 as the year that fanned the teen-pop revival craze, others will look back at it as the year that gave us Eagle Eye Cherry's 'Save Tonight', Will Smith's 'Gettin Jiggy With It', Backstreet Boys’ ‘Everybody' and Chumbawamba's ‘Tubthumping'. For Eric Hutchinson, he was too busy navigating the perils of graduating high school.
But even though the singer-songwriter had graduated from Montgomery Blair High School in suburban Maryland over 20 years ago, he still found himself revisiting the adolescent dreams, hopes, fears, and emotions he had once faced as a teen. With his latest studio album 'Class of 98', which releases on July 10, Hutchinson revisits both bittersweet memories and the phenomenal music from an era that most of humanity holds close to their hearts.
Speaking about the intent behind his latest work Hutchinson revealed, "The '90s for me were very much about growing pains and trying to figure myself out. So I was actually unhappy [during] a lot of the ’90s, but I enjoy the '90s artifacts. That was what this album was all about... I think so much of coming to the end of high school is feeling a bit trapped and feeling like you’ve outgrown your circumstances, which is, I think at least for me, is something [that] feels very familiar again now."
While the ideas for most of the songs were in place, Hutchinson then set out to create that quintessential '90s sound for the album. The genre-defying singer has explored everything from pop, jazz, and soul in the past (on albums like 'Modern Happiness' and 'Before and After Life'), but this time has focused on the zestful and influential power pop of his teenage years for this album, inspired by bands like Green Day, Nirvana, Oasis and Weezer.
To fully explore this nostalgic period, Hutchinson enlisted the help of Justin Sharbono (Soul Asylum) to showcase his signature guitar skills on the album and also roped in the famed producer Paul Kolderie, who has worked with legendary bands like Radiohead, Dinosaur Jr, Hole and The Pixies in the past. Kolderie was the perfect choice to produce the songs on 'Class of 98' as the album feels much like time traveling back to a summer day in 1998 and reaching for that radio dial.
Kicking off the album, Hutchinson gives us the very rock-n-roll 'Rock Out Tonight'. Speaking about the song, Hutchinson remarked, "It’s about wanting to be rebellious in a suburban life... but I’m probably about the least rebellious person you could find,” he chuckled. "So, the very first line of the song - and the album - summed up everything for me: 'If you want to rock out tonight, I can pick you up in my Ford Taurus.' I mean what’s less rock and roll than picking you up in my Ford Taurus?" The pent-up energy of the song seems to be Hutchinson's way of channeling the angst and aimlessness of teenagers looking for adventure with whatever means they have at their disposal.
'Cooler Than You' is a song that introverted kids pressured into the social quagmire of highschool would probably play on loop. Hutchinson recounts, "I was thinking about a frenemy/bully. I’m watching them be awesome but knowing that eventually, I’ll be better off. I'm always interested in asking questions in my songs: who’s cool, who gets to decide, and where do I fit into all of that?" Written as a 17-year-old getting a glimpse of their future, this song is as impassioned as it is reassuring, “I wrote this song for anybody who’s ever felt like the underdog, a little bit of a middle finger to all the people who I felt less than in high school,” the singer revealed.
‘My Old Man’ is Hutchinson's ode to the father figures that all of us loved, but never truly understood while growing up. The jaunty, almost anecdotal track bounces with energy while skirting a certain melancholy that only familial relationships can evoke. This incredibly poignant and personal song is in fact an ode to Hutchinson's own father who passed away after suffering under the yoke of myotonic dystrophy, a medical condition, and the cause that the musician has done a lot of philanthropic work for. "I didn't necessarily get along with my dad in high school," says the singer. "We were in different places in our lives and he had different things to worry about. I tried to sing this song from my perspective back then as well as my perspective now, where I’ve made peace with him."
Hutchinson keeps the mood soft and somber with the next track 'Ann Marie'. Harkening back to one of the first women Hutchinson ever felt love for, this is a slow and soul-stirring track, dealing with love that has only grown purer with time. "You feel like my best friend / But I am not sure I am yours," sings a forlorn Hutchinson. Next up is the positive 'Good Things Come', which is a mantra we could all use now more than ever. "I wrote it for my daughter, who was a few months old and would just go scream-crazy whenever we took the bottle away from her," recalls Eric.
This sage-like advice in the form of a grungy but surprisingly upbeat song is accompanied by an animated doodle-filled video that serves as the perfect visual representation for Eric’s mind during the creation of this album. 'Sweet Little Baby' is a groovy, melancholic deep-dive into heartbreak set to a dirge-like beat that oozes raucous irreverence. With simple lyrics, Hutchinson and the band craft a rollicking song for when you want to think back on an impish heartbreaker with waves of heady nostalgia.
Feeling uncared for or unloved is a universal feeling that suspiciously crops up during one's adolescence and often translates into a lack of concern for the external world at some point. This sentiment is channeled in the next song, 'If They Don't Care'. The track checks all the boxes of the quintessential '90s rebellious-youth rock song. It’s exactly what you need right now when the world and current times make you feel older than you are.
Channeling more delinquent-adolescent memories, 'Drunk At Lunch' is a youthful misadventure set to music. Jaunty and upbeat, Hutchinson sings of the highs and lows of dabbling with the many prohibitions that young people face, and their many attempts to circumvent those restrictions. 'Lovely Lori' might seem slightly anachronistic, as it could easily pass off as a slow-rock song from a decade ago. Yet as the vocal harmonies creep in and the uncanny '90s guitar chord progressions shift and twist the song, you can easily see Hutchinson’s varied musical sensibilities come together.
Hutchinson signs off in style, with the rollicking 'Whether I Like It Or Not', pulsing with the angsty, explosive energy of the '90s. This irreverent take on a heartbreak song is eruptive and infectious, and will either have you air-guitaring or goofing around like the folks in those dated music videos from the '90s. In keeping with '90s music traditions, Hutchinson snuck in a comical hidden track about a vegan woman at a restaurant.
"If you’re making a ’90s album, it’s got to have a hidden track," was his manager’s advice. "And I was like, 'That’s brilliant'. I had this song that I loved, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it longer. And I was like, 'Oh wait, this is the hidden track. I also like a song that’s as short as possible but still a complete song as a bridge. It’s got a full story. It’s telling. And I somehow feel like my fans are going to like this one and be asking for it at shows all the time'," Hutchinson concluded.
“I wrote and recorded ‘Good Things Come’ long before I had any idea what Covid-19 was," admits Hutchinson. "But the lyrics have a whole new meaning to me now as I quarantine, self-isolate and social distance. I know that the simple pleasures of hugging a friend, dining in a restaurant, or buzzing in a crowded theater are waiting for us all on the other side. I’ve had my dark days like everyone else during this weird and scary time."
"It can feel like we’re all stuck on the biggest airplane ever, circling the runway endlessly, waiting to land. However, I also find there are silver linings everywhere I look if I feel like looking for them. Today, I choose to believe that good things come to those who wait.” With these compelling words, Hutchinson masterfully describes the essence and feeling one gets after listening to ‘Class of 98’. While those days may have seemed daunting to him in the past, there is a lot that the '90s era did to shape not just Hutchinson as a person, but also the great music on this album.