Flip the Dial and That's Which Side You're On
The War Against Silence #40, 2 November 95
Goo Goo Dolls: A Boy Named Goo
Goo Goo Dolls: A Boy Named Goo
I hate bad band names, and "Goo Goo Dolls" is, in my book, about as bad as they come. Names that seem calculated to keep bands from ever getting taken seriously make me furious and disgusted. I also react badly, at least initially, to both pretty bands and slackers. Combine these three things, and you get my overall objection, until very recently, to the Goo Goo Dolls. Okay, yes, most of this came from just seeing the video for "We Are the Normal", from their previous album, Superstarcarwash (oh yes, I forgot, I also distrust titles made by cramming words together, titles with "super" in them anywhere, and anything having to do with celebrity-worship, whether sincere or sarcastic), a video in which the singer looked like a model and the other guys looked like high-school rejects.
So then, a few weeks ago, driving home from work or something, I heard a gorgeous, ringing guitar ballad on the radio that sounded like the Replacements might have sounded if they'd ever been given a good thorough scrubbing and detox just before being admitted to the studio to record. The DJ declined to ID it, though, so I filed it in my mental bin of unknowns, and limped on with my life. The next day I heard it again. And liked it even more. But still no ID. By the third time, I was singing along, and when they finally attributed it to the Goo Goo Dolls, I was crestfallen, as that either meant that the song was going to lure me into buying a lame album with one good moment, or else I was going to have to re-evaluate my stance against the band, and given how swamped with music I am already, having to admit that I now like a band I'd thought safely written off is always upsetting. But I kept hearing "Name", and finally I had to break down and buy the album.
My groaning CD vault, looking askance at another new band on the pile, was doubly distressed to note my reaction to playing A Boy Named Goo, particularly as the manic, joyful flailing it induced in me threatened to dislodge the plastic speaker-cable spool that holds the vault's upper doors closed. This is yet another phenomenal album, another album that I could disappear into for hours at a time. I know there are people who insist that no good music has been made since the Sixties (or the Forties, or 1610, or 1982), but on anything but the most dispassionate, intellectual level, I find it hard to believe them anything but totally, and tragically, insane. It seems like every time I pause to take a breath I discover another album that leaves me agape with wonder that a planet of humans who can't reliably manage to throw expired chewing gum into trash barrels can nonetheless produce achingly transcendent music seemingly at will.
If my current feelings for this album can be trusted, I may consider it one of the truly quintessential power-pop albums of the post-punk era. The Goo Goo Dolls are one of the easiest bands to describe that I can remember encountering: they sound to me exactly like a combination of the Replacements and Too Much Joy, grown up on Cheap Trick and open tunings. I mean the Replacements circa Tim and Pleased to Meet Me, when weariness had just begun to temper their punk vigor with melancholy, and if this reference is lost on you you've got two albums you need to go buy. Take this rage infused with desperation, and marry it to Too Much Joy's giddy, brattish, roaring, hook-packed glee (and if you don't know them, I suggest you quickly acquire their albums Cereal Killer and Mutiny), so that the Replacements elements no longer sound dissolute or noisy, and the Too Much Joy parts no longer sound precious or gimmicky. Let the Cheap Trick influence lend the mixture a fondness for stadium-shaking power, and then cover the whole album with a sheen of shimmering octaves and major-key harmony, and this is the album you get. There's not a sour note on the whole record. The guitars ring with heart-rending resonance, heavy on open fourths and fifths; the soaring harmonies are sweet and pure, and uncluttered by technique; the rhythm section crunches with an unassuming solidity, the bass throb rounding out the bottom of the sound; the lyrics are compelling but unthreatening. The composite effect is seamless, and I literally can't imagine how anybody could fail to smile bounce up and down in their chairs on application.
The record's structure obeys some timeless rules of guitar-pop album balance whose origins are shrouded in antiquity. It opens with the fast surge of "Long Way Down", where slashing guitars underscore a rousing chorus of generic sentiments like "I don't think I'll make it on my own" and "I don't want to live in here alone". This segues to the bouncy quickstep of "Burnin' Up", which provides half of the album's USRDA of titles with truncated "ing"s, as well as some good throaty screaming. "Naked" switches the pace slightly, dropping to an urgent mid-tempo that stutters across its bridges, the vocals stretching out over the rhythm in anthemic splendor (much like the chorus to "We Are the Normal", come to think of it, which probably means I'll be buying some back albums, grrr...). The lyrical references to "shots in the dark, from empty guns, never heard by anyone" echo classic rock and roll tropes of unheeded youth. "Flat Top" then takes the tempo both ways, alternating slower, deliberate, resounding choruses with verses that double the choruses' speed. "A visionary coward says that anger can be power, / As long as there's a victim on TV", they sing, neatly mixing Nineties media-cynicism with the Clash's canonical punk dictum about letting fury have the hour. They then speed up again for the goofy and irresistible "Impersonality", which reminds me of Too Much Joy for more reasons than just the fact that it refers to Thanksgiving and malls in the same song.
Then, perfectly placed just ahead of the album's midpoint, is "Name", the obligatory poignant, quiet, wistful, acoustic ballad. I don't have the slightest idea why the narrator seems to think he's doing the subject a service by not telling their name, but regardless, it's clearly a tender and principled decision, and reflects some indelible sadness having to do with orphans and emotional exhaustion, or something. The chiming acoustic guitar and the gentle bass and drums are pristine and mesmerizing, and this could be the Goo Goo Dolls equivalent of Queensryche's "Silent Lucidity", or those Extreme songs that got unsuspecting office drones to buy copies of Pornograffitti.
It doesn't do to linger on the slow bits, though, so "Only One" slams back into gear with gusto, a menacing bass rumble powering a chattering vocal about folk-singing and dope-smoking. "Somethin' Bad" gets big and goofy again, just to remind you that they can. "Ain't That Unusual" then decelerates just slightly, and lets its contrast with "Somethin' Bad" make it seem thoughtful and glorious. Something makes me think that this song is the kind of music that both Green Day and Social Distortion might have made if they'd had more-nurturing childhoods. This is happy music. A car-full of teenagers playing this album are not going to smash convenience-store windows or get into broken-bottle fights in gas station parking lots, because they're going to be too busy with the infinitely more valuable pursuits of playing air guitar and fantasizing about cheerleaders. "So Long" might lead the ones in the front seat to get a little carried away exaggerating the centrifugal effects of turns, and so cause the driver to mount a curb or two, or perhaps even graze a mailbox, but those are healthy expressions of youthful vigor, and also give small-town papers something to put in their police reports ("Damage to town property occurred when...", these entries always began in Park Cities News, the one I grew up with, though in case anybody from there is reading I should emphasize that I am, of course, aware of this behavior only actually going on in other places, where I didn't know anybody's last names, and couldn't see their faces clearly, and certainly wasn't at the wheel myself).
"Eyes Wide Open" is especially Replacements-like, a sort of "Bastards of Young" with better backing vocals. Then, for the important album-ending weirdness, there are churning covers of "Disconnected" (I should know who did this song originally, and even if I don't know it I should be able to figure it out from the writing credits to Mann, Piranha, Secrist and Sinister, but I'm afraid that all I can dredge out my memory on the subject is the vague suspicion that Secrist's first name is Stuart. One of you, no doubt, will email me the answer within hours of this appearing, and I'll feel like an idiot. I so wish they'd put a players index in the last Trouser Press book...), and "Slave Girl" (sorry, no clue on this one, either, and "M. Blood and R. Jakimyszyn" means nothing to me).
Anyway, it's all just about flawless. There's nothing here I'd call innovative or challenging, but there is virtue too in refinement, and both the Goo Goo Dolls and producer Lou Giordano deserve elevation to the peerage for coming this close to perfecting a noble art.
Copyright 1995, glenn mcdonald
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