MaroonBy TOM MOON, Rolling Stone #849.
The pros call them "placeholders" - nonsense words used by songwriters to keep the rhythm on track until the real lyrics come along. Barenaked Ladies have built a lucrative career out of such throwaway lyrics. 1998's aptly named Stunt found songwriters Ed Robertson and Steven Page feeding phrase after disconnected phrase into the one-liner machine, churning out the kind of convoluted couplets only a student of game theory could love. Their fans recognized "One Week" and other wordy missives as the musical equivalent of Instant Messages - incomplete but heartfelt, dashed off and opaque, open to multiple interpretations.
Now the reigning kings of geek pop, Canadian division, have decided to start making sense. There are still plenty of adolescent asides on their fifth studio album, Maroon - the first single, a faintly dub-influenced bonbon called "Pinch Me," alternates between riffs on the existential blankness of modern puberty and such third-grade taunts as "I just made you say underwear." But there are more moments when all-too-human messes lurk beneath the veneer of producer Don Was' perfect pop tracks, moments when the relentless sunniness of the music is pierced by sober themes (the last song, "Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel," is a graphic account of car-wreck carnage) and dark, psychological-profile assessments. In turning the snarky level down a notch, Robertson and Page haven't sacrificed the band's good-time giddiness - they've just opened things up a bit.
Being grown-up and all, Barenaked Ladies can bounce from sublime to ridiculous on a line-by-line basis, as happens on the bridge in the slapping shuffle "Never Do Anything." It begins with the solemn plea, "Don't write me off as an also-ran/ Just mark me down as an angry man." That's followed by something much more glib: "Got a big chip, you want a fat lip?/ How 'bout a mouth full of Chiclets?" Then it's back to a serious confession: "Life passed me by, but it's not my fault." Then the wry quipster reappears to get the last word: "I'll lick my wounds, could you pass the salt?"
That tart, smart writing defines much of Maroon, making it a nyah-nyah to those who dismissed Barenaked Ladies as nothing more than an accomplished novelty act. From the opening riff, which recalls the hulking rhythm-guitar line of the Stones' "Start Me Up," it's clear that this band isn't just aiming for kitschy laughs anymore. They are in pursuit of nothing less than the Supremely Crafted Pop Moment, that gilded edge-of-orgasm refrain that can change your life just by the way it sounds, no matter what the words say.
Producer Was, the celebrity career-fixer whose resume includes albums by the Rolling Stones, is perfect for the task: He's a sucker for that stuff, understands how to use studio trickery to create that magic and knows enough to avoid gooping up an otherwise solid song. He doesn't have to do much: Each of Maroon's first six tracks is a compact little marvel of logic and structure, and each is kept aloft by melodies that recall a less contrived era of rock history. One, "Falling for the First Time," strives to translate the emotional rush of falling in love into a swirling, shimmering wall of sound - with a nice detour for the earthbound observation, "anyone perfect must be lying." Another, the silky soul Al Green homage "Conventioneers," chronicles the arc of an office romance from first spark through drinks "and travel Scrabble" in the hotel room to a final acerbic twist of the knife: "It'd be great if you transferred out of state." Then there's "Go Home," which echoes the bounce of the Lovin' Spoonful's 1965 hit, "Do You Believe in Magic." It's another variation on the age-old notion that being home with your girl is more important than hanging with the guys. But it's hardly ordinary: "If you need her," one buoyant verse admonishes in perfectly rendered Beatlesque harmony, "get out of the slush/ Tell your dog team to mush."
It's been awhile since something so unabashedly wholesome, a rock album so incandescently proud to reference classic pop, came over the transom. The band has controlled its excessive, ornate impulses. And when they slip, the album's sequencing bails them out: The few gaudy musical-theater indulgences - the grandiose fable "Sell, Sell, Sell" and the pathos-heavy closer, "Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel" - can easily be skipped. This group of smart-aleck scholars has gotten wise and heeded the advice they dispense on one of Maroon's delirious stomps: "C'mon now, enjoy the humor of the situation."
Rating: 3½ stars (of 5).