I have maintained for 17 years (give or take) that Steven Page is the finest male pop vocalist around, so when I learned that he was leaving Barenaked Ladies, I felt some concern for what might happen to the band.
Despite their racy name, the five fully clothed Canadian goofs had a unique, wholesome, and geeky charm that grabbed me from my first listen to Gordon in 1992. They could be dangerous, but it was okay because it was absurd. And even though absurd wasn't cool yet, it served them well. Best of all, while the music was obviously all about them, it was also about me.
Unlike most pop acts, you could tell these guys thought their popularity was a big mistake. It had to be a joke, right? Five overweight nerds with a joke name? But they weren't a joke or a mistake; they were earnest musicians who had a mile-wide silly streak - who else could pull off a Star Trek reference on their first album?
And when they began to realize that it was real, and no joke, they weren't afraid to transition into real song-writing, sometimes leaving me breathless when I realized that there was no ready joke buried in the raw emotion of certain songs. And like my own transition from high school to adulthood, I found it easy to follow them wherever they went - even though there were some dark moments hiding under the bed.
This dark-edged but upbeat chemistry carried them through the brilliant Stunt andMaroon, and left them sounding baffled, happy, and a little bit tired on their back-to-back independent releases,Barenaked Ladies Are Me and Barenaked Ladies Are Men (the "BLAM" albums). I didn't know anything then, but I suspected they were feeling the strain of prolonged existence - a theme that Steve's songs had hinted at since the beginning.
What made this such a great band went beyond the song-writing - which could be a varied mixture of tender, witty, acerbic, sentimental, or naughty. There was a mixed-up collaborative feel to the songs that extended into their famous live improv work, and found its way back into the studio somehow. Whatever else you could say about them, The Ladies were there for a good time, and that's what they were good at providing. Everyone seemed to be having fun.
If you know them, you don't need me to tell you this, but that chemistry came from combining 5 distinctly different and intensely creative personalities into one unit. We're not talking about Lennon/McCartney level collaboration, but you could tell each member did their own thing, brought it into the studio, and took turns going "Yeah, I like that! Want me to do THIS?"
It's probably no secret why Steve left the band. After a drug bust in 2008, his lifestyle appeared to be veering into the self-indulgent and self-destructive. I don't know the details - whether he wanted to leave, or the rest of the band wanted him to leave; whether he needed to get away to get better, or what - but it's not hard to see the effects that years of continued adulation, success, and hard work can have on a group like this. They went farther than they ever expected they would, did more good work than any of us had a right to expect them to do, and delivered on the promise to keep getting along and to keep the ride running.
It's no wonder if they got tired.
And that is why I worried. I was afraid that I would miss the voice of Steve in the mix. Maybe it was hard for him to play the role, but the dark edge of his wit, and the honesty of his voice combined with the levity of the group to create great pop music. I knew that without the more upbeat influence of his friends, his solo work would probably not satisfy me, but I held out hope that they would be able to make something enjoyable even without him.
If you've come this far up memory lane with me, you may have noticed - I haven't mentioned anything about the new album. I intended to. I was bracing myself for having to write down in words what I thought and felt listening to it; but I decided that what I had to say would be unfair. There were some comments in my head, using words like "lassitude" and "lackluster"... but to aim them at people who have been so good to me over the years just seemed mean and pointless.
You might go ahead and check out All In Good Time; you might even find something there to enjoy. You might also like Steve's The Vanity Project. But all I heard was the voices that weren't there.
I hope they'll come back someday and rebuild.