THE GOO GOO DOLLS
TEENAGE SYMPHONIES: The Goos master prom-night power balladry.
HIGH SCHOOL with money, it’s often said, and that’s equally true of success as a power-pop combo. Adolescence provides the full spectrum of emotions that this style of music admits, and, once success comes your way, growing beyond those feelings
means running a commercial risk. Take the Goo Goo Dolls, for example, whose seventh studio album, Gutterflower, finds the band still addressing the agonies and ecstasies of life after class ends.
The group, originally a Buffalo band called the Sex Maggots, started out playing rough-hewn rock along the lines of the Replacements and Soul Asylum. And like those bands, the Goos — singer-guitarist John Rzeznik, bassist-vocalist Robby Takac and original drummer George Tutuska — earned a heart-on-their-sleeves reputation for uproarious, ragged-but-right live shows, even as the big time eluded them.
After nearly ten years together, in 1995, the band’s fifth album, A Boy Named Goo, spun off the hit single “Name,” and the trio saw a route off the endless road of vans, a blindly devoted cult following and one-night stands. That route was the same one that opened up for Soul Asylum around the same time, not to mention a generation of metal bands before them: the power ballad. This wasn’t any kind of cynical sellout. Beneath their enthusiastic din, the band’s. songs, particularly those written by Rzeznik, always revealed a penchant for melody, memorable hooks and discernible structure. Acoustic-guitar sweetening, a bit of lift to the choruses and a nudge out of red-zone distortion for the electric guitars provided just the right frame for Rzeznik’s rumpled, sensitive-guy persona. The girls got it. Tutuska was replaced by Mike Malinin, the Former drummer for Minor Threat, who also had decided it was upward-mobility time. At long last, the Goos were rock stars.
That status solidified when the City of Angels soundtrack made “Iris,” from the Goos’ 1998 album, Dizzy Up the Girl, ubiquitous on the airwaves and music-video channels. While enjoying their deserved success, however, the Goos clearly had become concerned about being perceived as a cuddly pop band by younger fans who didn’t have the slightest idea who the Replacements were. To restore a sense of the band’s thrash-friendly past, last year the Goos released the wryly titled What I Learned About Ego, Opinion, Art and Commerce, a twenty-two-track career overview that ignored the hits in favor of rawer (if remixed) songs dating back to the group’s early records on Metal Blade.
Now, on Gutterflower, the band’s first album of new material in more than three years, the Goos attempt to split the difference, for the most part, successfully. The first single, “Here Is Gone,” hews deftly to the hitmaking formula defined by “Name” and “Iris.” A midtempo ballad, it’s simultaneously delicate and big-sounding, filled with desperate yearning. By way of contrast, though, the album opens with the rhythmic blast of “Big Machine,” while “Up, Up, Up” — a live-wire map written and sung by the raspy-voiced Takac — sounds like Harvey Weinstein fronting Hüsker Dü. The moody touches on “Truth Is a Whisper,” the album’s closing track, recall the sinister psychedelia of Blue Öyster Cult.
Getting back to high school with money: On the eight (of twelve) tracks that he wrote, Rzeznik reprises his role as the tormented outsider who fights off his own pain in an effort to rescue any number of dizzied-up girls. His lyrics combine impassioned encouragement, charming vulnerability and therapeutic exhortations. “I’m still here, but you don’t trust at all,” he chides one lover; “feel this moment in you,” he urges another. On “Sympathy,” he confides, “I wasn’t all the things/I tried to make believe I was.” These are the self-dramatizing sentiments of high school heartbreak, the fodder of the primetime sitcoms and Rate-night movies where many of the songs on Gutterflower are inevitably going to end up. There’s nothing wrong with that, although, at thirty-six, Rzeznik is edging toward the outer reaches of his ability to embody those emotions and make them credible.
Not that this is anything Rzeznik doesn’t realize himself. “You’re a supermarket punk-rock television comedy,” he spits out on “What a Scene,” and it’s not a destiny he seems especially interested in accepting. But just as the hits came along to raise the band to the next level it had to get to, the Goos now need to find a way to make music that makes sense after prom night. Gutterflower proves once again that they are masters at crafting instantly appealing pop songs, admittedly no small gift in itself. But do the Goo Goo Dolls have much to say beyond that? Tune in next time.