20 Years On: Why Fuel “Shimmer” is one of the best modern pop songs ever

Fuel Carl Bell Shimmer mainbar

If you do a search of my Twitter user name and the word “shimmer”, you’re going to find at least a dozen instances of me proclaiming my love for a song that turned 20 years old today.

“Shimmer” was the tune that launched the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania rock band Fuel. You may be more familiar with their later massive breakthrough “Hemorrhage (In My Hands)” from their sophomore full-length record Something Like Human — that song spent 12 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard U.S. Modern Rock Tracks in 2000.

But “Shimmer” sounds more timeless compared to everything that came after it. Lead vocalist Brett Scallions’ syrupy vocals are introduced alongside a light guitar melody. A string arrangement accompanies him as he sings the first bridge — “We’re here and now / Will we ever be again? / Cause I have found, all that shimmers in this world is sure to fade away again”. The song then explodes with drums and guitar into the next verse like you’re diving into a pool on a hot day, and from the moment I heard the song I was hooked.

It has a great build, a catchy hook and melody, and the way Scallions sings the final chorus “It’s too far away for me to hold, it’s too far away” never fails to give me goosebumps. Revisit it below.

I spoke with the songwriter behind the tune, Fuel’s former lead guitarist Carl Bell, revisiting the song that launched his career as a musician — a song that holds up pretty damn well 20 years later.

“I felt good about it for sure when I wrote it,” Bell told Pass The Aux over the phone. “I knew the chord changes were nice. It’s got that C-chord with an open string running through it. It was a movable position on the neck. It has this nice chimey sound to the chord changes. I remember liking that. I love that little string-line that was going to be in there.”

“Brett could really sing it, he always brought that natural compression to his voice that he sings that’s so unique,” Bell said of his former bandmate. “He and I could get in a room together and we could get these amazing vocal recordings and I remember being blown away by some of the stuff he could do.”

I remember staying up late to watch Fuel’s split VH1 Storytellers episode with Train and Bell shared with the crowd the origin of the tune. It’s about the first time he ever experienced serious heartbreak, how a girl dumped him for another guy that she ended up marrying. Years later she called him when her relationship was having problems, and he still felt hurt and also helpless in terms of being to help her through what she was going through. It’s also about being jaded about relationships after you’ve been burned before. It’s the sort of thing many of us can relate to, and it comes through with each word in the song.

“It’s just one of those things that leaves a lasting impression on you,” Bell told me about the song’s origins. “‘Shimmer’ came out of that experience and I think it’s the kind of lasting experience most of us have gone through.”

“Shimmer” is also a song that I consider to be one of the best modern pop songs ever written. Sometimes I’ve gotten pushback on that — Mark, Fuel doesn’t write “pop songs”. Well what is a pop song?

To me, to be a pop song, you have to be accessible. And “Shimmer” was highly accessible. It’s the most accessible song Fuel ever wrote, and it’s amazing considering some of the other songs that appeared on their debut album Sunburn. “Shimmer” was followed up by a song called “Jesus Or A Gun” on the album’s tracklisting. It was as heavy rock sounding as you’d imagine. But “Shimmer” prophesied the band’s future crossover appeal.

I asked Carl Bell if he thought “Shimmer” could be considered a pop song, and it’s no surprise it was a point of contention within the band 20 years ago.

“Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have felt it was a pop song, but looking back on it now, I see what you’re saying,” Bell said.

“It’s funny that you say that because there was a huge argument within the band because the record company wanted to take that and cross it over into top 40. Of course we were on alternative rock charts and you gotta remember this is 20 years ago when everybody was so worried about protecting their image. Nowadays, I bet you don’t even have a discussion about this. But back then you were a little more precious about the way you were presented and we were probably too precious about how we were presented. We didn’t want to take this song to top 40. But the record label saw it the way you see it, that it was more of a song that could be — even though it had the rock side — it could be played on pop radio.”

Photo by Dr. Chris Downs via CarlBellMusic.com

“Shimmer” didn’t enjoy the success of “Hemorrhage” or some of their other hits, but it did reach No. 2 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks charts. The song that was No. 1 was pretty unstoppable, and Bell holds no grudge against the tune they couldn’t dethrone.

“It never reached No. 1 on the charts because the Goo Goo Dolls song ‘Iris’ was ahead of it and we could never top that song,” Bell recalls. “But I always said to people, if there was any song I would play second fiddle to and I had to do it, it would be that song. I’m OK playing second fiddle to “Iris” because that’s a song I always liked and always wished I had wrote that song.”

Carl Bell played with Fuel through 2010, though Scallions was out of the band from 2006 until 2010. Fuel still tours, though at the present time Scallions is the only original member. There’s no bad blood — prior interviews suggest Bell is happy that his songs and Fuel lives on, saying they deserve to be experienced live by new audiences.

Carl Bell also just released his first solo record last year, a pretty damn good country album called Tennessee Fuel — the album name a nod to his old Tennessee roots as well as his old band’s name. Bell’s got a good voice, and Fuel fans can get nostalgic through the country version of one of their other hits “Bad Day”.

Could we one day see Fuel’s original lineup? The fact that there doesn’t seem to be any ill will means I wouldn’t rule it out. If so, I’ll be the first lined up to sing “Shimmer”.