(This synopsis accompanies my Pop Matters article about Jellyfish’s 1993 album SPILT MILK.)
Act One. Our setting is San Francisco. Our time is the rock era. Our heroine is Sebrina. As the curtain opens, she’s an infant in her cradle, over which looms her father, singing her a lullaby (“Hush”)—his last act before running out on her forever. Flash forward a few years, and there she is at about seven or eight years old: approximately the age at which she appears on Spilt Milk’s cover. She’s obsessed with a certain rockstar (“Joining A Fanclub”) and collects all his albums, writes him fan letters, etc. He happens to be her father, but he dies in a car crash before she can discover this.
Act Two: Sebrina’s now in about the sixth grade. In class, she meets Chesney Lynn, a charming class clown, incorrigible cutup, and born entertainer. She’s smitten, and so is he (“Sebrina, Paste, and Plato”). Chesney knows something Sebrina doesn’t: that she’s the daughter of his hero, the late, great rockstar in whose footsteps he wants to follow. By the end of the song, a time lapse has taken place and they’re of age, in love, and the very young parents of a baby born out of wedlock. Chesney sings a song about this happy baby-accident, called “New Mistake”. He sings it in a spotlight, backed by a rock band, because he’s already on his way to stardom: by the end of the song, Sebrina, the (unwitting) child of a rockstar, is married to one, Chesney, in a shotgun wedding. But having ascended toward rock stardom, Chesney fully embraces the high-living, hard-charging, wine-women-and-song life that comes with it, and he leaves her and the newborn bereft (“Glutton of Sympathy”). The curtain closes on a forlorn Sebrina holding her wee one close in the wee hours.
Act Three: Here’s Chesney, now a full-blown superstar, singing his hit single, “The Ghost at Number One”. The song is about Sebrina’s dead rockstar dad, but it also includes Chesney turning to address Sebrina herself during the bridge: he tells her that the child they’ve made together is going to become a rockstar—“Mrs. Lynn, the fruit of your labor / Gives us a savior”, as the songs puts it—just like Chesney, and just like Sebrina’s father. Then Sebrina herself sings “Bye, Bye, Bye”, a sort of cross between Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” and Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is”: a song about the disillusionment of love, delivered to her young son. She’s going to take the two of them back home, perhaps to live in her childhood bedroom where she worshipped a dead rockstar. But just as she has committed herself to a life of just the two of them, Chesney returns to beg her to take him back, in the thunderous “All Is Forgiven”. It’s a conflicted appeal made by a deeply flawed hero, but it’s so potent it works: Chesney spirits Sebrina away in his rockstar car, with rockstar abandon, at rockstar speed—and at the end of the song there is another car crash in which both Chesney and Sebrina perish. What follows is a dream sequence that traces their ascent to rockstar heaven, a realm reserved only for the rich and famous that is reached by way of “a bridge of gold / to landscapes of juniper” and ends in an Edenic place called “Russian Hill”—a San Franciscan metaphor for the Great Beyond.
Act Four: Their orphan takes the stage and comes of age, almost literally, in a song called “My Best Friend”: a charming ode to masturbation, but more saliently a metaphor for the progenitive/creative impulse generally. By the time the song, er, climaxes, the orphan has emerged as a fully-fledged musical force himself, just like his father and his grandfather. To both of their ghosts he sings “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late”: a song about the illusion and futility—even the curse—of rock stardom. As the song merges into the next one, which will be the finale, we become aware that this young man is both the composer and, it turns out, the late-emerging protagonist of the entire story—which is, in fact, the very rock opera we have been watching all along, Spilt Milk: the orphan’s story about his twisted rock inheritance, about all the Ghosts at Number One who run in his genes and have filled him with their vim, vinegar and insight.
Act Five: It’s just one song, but what a song. “Brighter Day” orchestrates a grand finale in which a “big parade” takes the stage: the endless and crowded march of rock stardom in which there is always another “blade, he’s a renegade, turning bullshit into marmalade,” waiting in the wings to take the spotlight and “wear that clown crown”. It’s not only a grand illusion—”the big parade” is also “the big charade”—it’s a perpetual cycle of ghosts at number one. The song starts in a high-stepping march, then winds down to a heavy, almost weary tempo that builds to a vast crescendo in which every single instrument we’ve heard on the album, from accordion to zither (well, harp), returns to take its musical bow. Finally, the ghost of Sebrina herself re-enters to take one last waltz with her son; and with a final swell of music, the opera climaxes gloriously and then abruptly yields to a single, frail pinpoint of musical light: precisely the same note—an F-sharp, that blackest of black keys, sustained on violins, arrived at via a tritone, the sinister “Devil’s Interval”—with which Spilt Milk began.