Barenaked Ladies – Barenaked Ladies Are Men
Desperation Records (2/6/07)
Pop / Rock
They’ve gone from singing about macaroni and cheese, underwear jokes and chimpanzees to singing about marriage, perils of success and politics. After seventeen years as a band, Canada’s Lost Boys of pop have grown up. But is that a good thing?
Well, yes and no.
Barenaked Ladies Are Men is the latest album from Canadian popsters Barenaked Ladies, who exploded in America in the late nineties, and kind of dwindled away slowly from the public eye since then. They haven’t stopped making albums though, always keeping their sense of fun, wordplay and youthâ€”at least until last year.
2006 saw the release of Barenaked Ladies Are Me, a companion piece to Are Men, and their first self-produced album of original material. With softer sounds, less whimsy and more adult subject matter, Are Me was quite a departure from their previous work. Unfortunately, it also wasn’t that good, as the whole album seemed to struggle to show to people that the band could write songs for grown-ups.
However, the album doesn’t struggle through those growing pains, as the songs are written and presented with more confidence. It takes the lyrical wordplay of Ed Robertson and the powerhouse vocals that Steven Page is capable of, and applies them to songs more apropos to men in their mid-thirties. Also, they share the album more with voices of other band members, with keyboardist/guitarist Kevin Hearn penning and singing two songs.
The album actually starts off with a Hearn composition, â€œSerendipityâ€; his high reedy voice recalling a childhood romance, and reasoning however sweet it seemed, it’s probably better it never worked out, for both of them. There’s no punchline, and no grit; it’s a sincere song about looking back at youth, and an interesting way to start off the album.
The rest of the first half of the album cycles between songs by Ed Robertson and Steven Page. Robertson’s contributions here are workable, with the music and interlocking harmonies overwhelming the lyrics mostly, though he does shine with the bitter putdown â€œDown to Earthâ€. Page, on the other hand, struggles with pedestrian songs that rely on his vocals more than any musical worth they inherently have. The album takes a turn, however, on Stephen Page’s third song, â€œRunning Out of Inkâ€. It’s a song about his struggles to write anything worth a damn, now that he’s successful. It seems his friends, his loved ones, even himself just seems to think he can’t cut it anymore. It’s a startling song, not only because it reveals so much about the mindset of someone who was briefly very famous and is struggling to recapture it, but because its placement on the album, after two weaker songs, reinforces its message even more.
The latter half of the album is much stronger, with songs like â€œHalf a Heartâ€ and â€œQualityâ€ highlighting the lyrical strengths of Robertson, and â€œThe New Sadâ€ and â€œWhy Say Anything Niceâ€ having Page give his takes on relationships in marriage. The one song that stands out, though, is called â€œFun & Gamesâ€. It’s written from the perspective, apparently, of President Bush and his advisors. It’s basically asking you, the American public, why are you getting so upset about the war in Iraq. Didn’t you get that it’s just a joke? This song is surprising on multiple accounts. One is blatant political slantâ€”it’s an arena that the Barenaked Ladies almost never venture in, and when they do, it’s usually in a tangential way. Secondly, it’s the viciousness in the lyrics; they have a bite and violence to them you just don’t expect, especially contrasted with the jauntiness of the music. When Ed Robertson sings, â€œThey were shocked and they were awed and they were blown in halfâ€ or perhaps even more surprising, â€œThere’s no need to draft them / The poor and black all need their room and boardâ€, you pretty much do an aural double take. Or you would, if I didn’t just tell you it was coming.
The album taken as a whole is good for what it is, which is basically a adult contemporary album by a pop band. After a shaky beginning, the album hits its stride, mixing in the things that made the band successful with strides in a new direction. It’s not for everyone’s tastes, as it’s really aimed at people in their thirties, which really is not a pop band’s ideal target audience. That hurts the album as much as any weaknesses in songwriting.