When they struck the Hot 100 bell with “One Week,” Barenaked Ladies secured their position as genuinely subversive participants in the mass media, right alongside Marshall McLuhan and SCTV. Like their fellow members of that Toronto-based trinity, BNL mastered the lost art of keeping a secret by deftly selling a discarded discourse on American junk culture back to America. In a lightning-speed era where the analysis of a trend can strike quicker than the thunder of any phenomenon itself, the Canadian quintet long ago calculated that music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebels. Welcome to the new frontier of genuine college rock.
Its release perfectly timed for dorm rotation, their new Maroon makes no pretense to high-shticking. Besides, BNL asserted themselves as baggy-shorted sing-along savants out of the gate—their moronic canon, like “If I Had $1000000” and “Be My Yoko Ono,” was perfected live years before the release of 1992’s debut album, Gordon. In fact, given their initial homeland triumphs as Guess Who-sized buffoons, Maroon is BNL’s fourth refutation of their image as a one-note avalanche of pasty-faced whimsy. They had better have gotten better at justifying their bewildering appeal by putting on a parade of apparent emotional depth.
During live performances, BNL’s engagingly smug banter is interspersed with ponderous ballads—when bespectacled Steven Page launches into his reflective mode, he might as well be lip-synching Andy Kaufman-style to scratchy Mario Lanza records. Perhaps the only thing that keeps the hordes from hurtling toward the beer concessions is that so many BNL fans have always hovered beneath drinking age. Their audiences are old enough to grasp the barbed and wired witticisms, yet find considerable empathy in a fellow fratboy’s slim campfire songs about the tribulations of staying true.
While the group initially reserved this contemplative state for musings about the music business—”Box Set,” “Brian Wilson,” and “New Kid (on the Block)” were all on Gordon—Page and his strumming lieutenant, Ed Robertson, have been married with children since at least their mid twenties. If their initial batch of wistful indulgences was written with anticipation of Jonathan Richman being reflected in the mirror, what was actually staring back risked becoming more akin to “Butterfly Kisses.”
Throughout Maroon, though, producer Don Was mercifully dispenses with mawkishness in favor of a theatrical approach tailored for arena consumption. While a comparable popularity pinnacle once prompted Michael Stipe to snidely mock Lou Gramm by covering “Midnight Blue,” BNL channel Foreigner outright on “Falling for the First Time.” The song deals sincerely with being a wide-eyed tyke from a parental perspective—ideal for a tween movie soundtrack. And Maroon‘s opening tunes are built around hand claps (“Too Little Too Late”) and party-in-the-background noise (“Never Do Anything”), all rolled out with enough earnestness to transcend any white-man’s-overbite shimmying such distressing ditties might inspire.
Page’s relationship-centered abstractions aside, finally hitting pay dirt with 1998’s hip-hop-gibberish “One Week” means it’s incumbent upon BNL to remain, uh, quirky. The task falls to morose Robertson for the single, “Pinch Me,” which rides its dreary beatbox backing with a trite condemnation of frivolous fast-food nihilism—only to reward album buyers with a sumptuous psychedelic coda lopped off the video version. Yet, what with liner notes quoting “Maroon” from Ken Nordine’s mid-’60s word-jazz album Colors, the Ladies are less belated hippies than inveterate beatniks. “Sell Sell Sell” ravishes consumer culture—imagining what Rage Against the Machine would sound like if they had a member who knew how to play glockenspiel—replete with dastardly ’50s show tune flourishes. Roll over Tom Lehrer, and tell Stan Freberg the news.
Such operatic conceits allow BNL to stride beyond their humble beginnings as dorky buskers—because his shower-stall tenor can be a bludgeoning imposition to the uninitiated, Page shimmers best when he gets doused with melodramatic atmosphere. “Conventioneers” delicately ponders the philandering antics that swirl around a ballroom full of stockbrokers, “Off the Hook” spins a lurid yarn, “Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel” enacts a blood-spattered plunge. All are cloaked in cocktail shmaltz—yet ultimately deliver rapturous storytelling.
The status of the Barenaked frontmen as 30-year-old family guys has secured their ability to cultivate, without any hint of condescension, an exuberant following. Despite its listless slinking, the Maroon centerpiece, “Baby Seat,” is a motivational anthem that wryly advocates unadulterated adulthood. Deceptiveness of this sort can make drawing any stylistic precedents a tough task. For example, in the ’70s, Dr. Hook first conquered the charts rendering sinister Shel Silverstein lyrics, then went scampering toward saccharine sentiment—somehow, Barenaked Ladies straddle both dimensions at once. But then, most of their fans were probably conceived to the strains of Dr. Hook’s “Sharing the Night Together.”