Sugar Ray’s Music for Cougars begins threateningly with “Girls Were Made to Love”. A remake of Eddie Hodges’ “(Girls Girls Girls Are) Made to Love” that also bites lyrics from Wreckx-N-Effect and/or DeBarge, the song features someone called Collie Buddz whose flow is comically indistinguishable from Snow and Ras Trent. There also exists the question of which kind of cougars such a song is intended to please. Actual cougars? Unlikely. Single women in their forties and fifties who might remember the original song released in 1962? Possibly.
The aberration of the first song craftily causes the listener to welcome (on some level) the more even-keeled Sugar Ray sound on subsequent tracks, which alternate between slight modernizations and loose throwbacks. “Going Nowhere” makes use of the contained anthem style that bands like Fall Out Boy have popularized in recent years, and “Last Days” is an aging echo of MGMT’s “Time to Pretend”. But at this point in its career, Sugar Ray should not need to take cues from youngsters.
The band is more successful when it reveals the influence of classic vocal pop groups on tracks like “Boardwalk” and “Love 101”. To be certain, Sugar Ray does not measure up to Jan and Dean or early Beach Boys, but there are far worse traditions they could follow, and on these songs the band bears the influence without imitating inferiorly. Teenybopping summer-love tale “Boardwalk”, lifted in spirit from Grease, seems a bit nonsensical when one considers the age of both singer Mark McGrath and the titular cougars he hopes to seduce. Yet the song’s innocence is preferable to the euphemistically titled “She’s Got the (Woo-Hoo)”, which goes on to penetrate the mystery of the woo-hoo by spelling out “She comes when she’s ready / She’s sex in the city / She’ll bring you to your knees”.
Injudicious Auto-Tuned vocals on “Closer” hinder a song that could otherwise fall somewhere in the minor Ric Ocasek (or at least late-Rivers Cuomo) pop mode. However, “Love Is the Answer”, written by Cuomo, is weak on all levels, from the lyrical pabulum to the strained chorus (think Rascal Flatts) to a soullessly spoken mini-sermon. These positive vibes are endemic on Music for Cougars, and it is easy to imagine “Rainbow” becoming an inspirational staple for listeners who have responded to similar uplifts from Creed and any number of other acts that have populated the VH1 top 20. But there’s something so utterly generic about the execution of the message. Optimism in and of itself is a virtue, but there must be better ways to express it than “If you want to see the rainbow / You gotta sit through a little rain” and “With every ending / Something begins”.
Sugar Ray is somewhat unique for having cautiously backed off when its popularity waned early in the decade. In interviews announcing the release of Music for Cougars, McGrath has been frank about his band’s limited place in pop rock history, using the opportunity to temper expectations rather than announce some grand second coming. It seems that McGrath and his bandmates will be content if the new songs please their existing fan base. That’s an admirable level of self-awareness, and it does set up at least one standard by which the new album will either succeed or fail.
On the other hand, there is nothing necessarily preventing the band from attempting another stylistic transition like the one that carried them from Lemonade and Brownies to Floored, 14:59, and Sugar Ray. Surely the band had some early followers that resisted the increasing adult contemporary blandness of those popular albums. And there are countless haters who have never been receptive to the band at all. So it would be very interesting to see Sugar Ray give up the summery pop altogether for at least one album, if its members were so moved. A more mature direction for the music seems to be a good next step, since by this point the band is literally declaring an aging target market in an album title.