Albumism – Goo Goo Dolls’ ‘A Boy Named Goo’ Turns 25/ Anniversary Retrospective

Happy 25th Anniversary to Goo Goo Dolls’ fifth studio album A Boy Named Goo, originally released March 14, 1995.

By Jeremy Levine

Most people don’t know that The Goo Goo Dolls used to be a punk band. For most of their early output, they peddled shouty vocals and three-chord progressions, sometimes successfully (see 1990’s Hold Me Up) and sometimes less so (don’t see 1989’s Jed). Of course, they would eventually reach mainstream success with International Superhit “Iris” in 1998, but there’s one record that sits in the liminal space between mainstream-focused pop rock and the early punk days: A Boy Named Goo (1995).

In spite of its simplistic structures, punk is limitless—it certainly outlasted the Goo Goo Dolls’ own time in the genre—but maybe there’s only so much one group can pour into that format before they leave it behind for the next group of kids with distortion pedals and the same three chords. On A Boy Named Goo, we see a group figuring out this moment of transition, taking some more risks in terms of form and instrumentation, and seeing whether they want to stretch the limits of their familiar genre.

Sonically, this tension results not just in a polishing of a punk sound (as was the approach on 1993’s Superstar Car Wash) or a loudening of a mainstream sound. Most tracks on A Boy Named Goo luxuriate in the fuzzy border between the two sounds, creating some of the most dynamic work in the band’s now-sprawling repertoire. “Only One,” for example, jumps to half-time after the second chorus, then makes a jump to light speed for one magnificent couplet before crashing to a final refrain.

Then there’s “Burnin’ Up,” which ends its first chorus with some magnificent Takac shouting, leading to a bridge and verse at full throttle before hitting a final chorus that replaces the shouting at the end with unexpected vocal harmony.

Maybe most interesting is “Flat Top,” the second-slowest track after “Name” and the longest in the band’s discography at the time of recording. It’s also the most lyrically punk cut on the album, taking aim at television, consumer culture, and slacktivism. Other miracles lie elsewhere: there’s the strong relationship between vocal delivery and lyrical meaning on “Impersonality,” the incredible tightness of “Somethin’ Bad,” and the a cappella bridge of “Naked.” While the band’s punk lineage (and sometimes punk itself) is still present on A Boy Named Goo, there’s a conscious broadening of horizons.

You’d think that the case in point here would be “Name,” the only acoustic song on the LP. This track would become the first Goo Goo Dolls song to reach the Billboard Chart, and it’s the thing that made them popular enough to get Johnny Rzeznik the job of writing “Iris” for City of Angels. Without “Name,” there’s almost definitely no polished second act to the Goo Goo Dolls career—certainly no “Better Days” or “Rebel Beat.”

Putting “Name” in the context of A Boy Named Goo is somewhat perplexing. You’ve got a massive mainstream hit sitting smack in the middle of a punk-adjacent record that ends with a track called “Slave Girl.” It’s tempting to say that “Slave Girl” and “Name” exist on opposite ends of the sonic spectrum that define the record, but that’s not entirely true.

The Goo Goo Dolls had been pulling this trick for years. Both Jed and Hold Me Up close with acoustic numbers (“James Dean” and “Two Days In February,” respectively) while Superstar Car Wash features “We Are The Normal,” which features rich acoustic instrumentation and a songwriting credit for Paul Westerberg. Breaking up their frenzy with something more low-key had been part of the Goo playbook for years. None of the previous acoustic efforts were hits, but they give us an aesthetic template for understanding “Name” within A Boy Named Goo outside of the “you’re a sell-out, maaaaaan” trap that the single’s place in history implies.

It’s also a bit of a trap to think about punk only as a sound. It’s also a community, a response, a position. If you watch Goo Goo Dolls footage from 1995 or 1996, while the transition period that I’ve been peddling in this essay was supposedly going on, you’ll find yourself watching a punk show. Everything about the energy—the full-throated singalongs, the crowd surfing, the clothes—is fully punk. Maybe it’s because crafting a new sound in the studio, where you have the benefit of overdubs and second takes, is more feasible than embracing a new identity on stage. Or maybe it’s because the audience didn’t buy in to the change in direction. Regardless of the reason, the Goos’ aesthetic in live performance reveals that so much of the punk ethos that defined their music up to this moment was still part of them.

A Boy Named Goo is both punk and not, both mainstream and not. It’s a convergence of many things that the Goo Goo Dolls had always been up to that point, with the encroachment of the future mixed in. Call it a harbinger of things to come, call it a swan song for a sound at the end of its run. Regardless of what it represents (or doesn’t), it’s still a singular artifact in the band’s catalogue, a collection of their most interesting songs and arrangements, a unified piece that’s uncertain of its past and future but confident in its present.

One thought on “Albumism – Goo Goo Dolls’ ‘A Boy Named Goo’ Turns 25/ Anniversary Retrospective

  1. I love love love this album!! I love our Goo Goo Dolls!! AND, John Rzeznik the lyrical genius!!

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