Everything is Too Finished
Yeah, so I’m a Barenaked Ladies fan. Wanna make something of it? I’ve been a fan since a copy of Gordon was pushed on me in 1994, making me someone who’s been with BNL during periods of obscurity, AAA-radio novelty act, burgeoning success, hipness, superstardom, and mainstream mainstay. With the pendulum having swung towards not liking BNL because of their place on the adult contemporary charts, they lack the goofy outsider status and are suddenly a band that, should you choose to support it, could cost you some credibility. And I couldn’t care less. Their albums have always been enjoyable listens, they remain one of the most genuinely fun live acts I’ve ever seen, and I just love inventive pop-rock bands.
Which is why Everything to Everyone comes as something of a disappointment. If the press picked up on 2000’s Maroon because it was a follow-up to the out-of-leftfield success of Stunt, I praised it for the music. Give me bombast and spectacle and a shimmering production so slick that water would bead off of it like a wax job on a Porsche, I don’t care. Don Was gave Barenaked Ladies an opportunity to go free-range with their pop vision, and Maroon turned out to be a thick, top-heavy, and absolutely wonderful album that crept and leapt, crawled and sprawled, but never once seemed formulaic. In spite of a few well-deserved singles, critics and fans may have found Maroon to be a bit of a let-down, but I beg to differ.
And yet, I just can’t give Everything to Everyone the same leeway. In fact, even if I still think that the spectrum of styles and sounds on Maroon makes it a great disc, there seems to be too much of a concerted effort to live up to this new disc’s title on this outing. It’s unintentionally ironic, something that’s dangerous for a band that has always used glibness and irony with deliberation. If I had to compare Everything to Everyone to another disc from BNL’s back-catalog, I’d have to say that it most closely reminds me of Born on a Pirate Ship without the kicks of “The Old Apartment” and “Shoe Box”. There’s good music here, sure, and it’s not a boring or painful listen, but nothing really stands out.
I suppose it’s worth tackling “Another Postcard” first, as the song is Everything to Everyone‘s first and most obvious single. Why obvious? Because it’s the silliest song on the disc, because it features Ed Robertson’s now-infamous high-speed rapping, and because it sounds the most like “One Week” (or, perhaps more accurately, the most like “Pinch Me” which was the big first single from Maroon because it sounded the most like “One Week”). Thank you, Reprise and Warner Bros., for trusting the musical public to have some variety and taste. While “Another Postcard” might be a funny enough song as a goofy album cut, it just doesn’t have the weight of “One Week”‘s then-unique flow or “Pinch Me”‘s hooks. Plus, it’s just dumb. Even a fellow fan who admittedly likes “their fast songs the best” voiced the opinion that she just couldn’t hang with a song about chimps on postcards. It’s less meaningful than “One Week”, and that’s saying something. What’s more, I don’t understand how this kind of narrow-minded marketing makes any sense, considering that plenty of their non-campy songs have been successful. Oh wait, it’s because their novelty songs have sold the most. I almost forgot.
For the rest of us who may actually like the band more than that, the next most interesting thing about Everything to Everyone is the dichotomy of “Celebrity” and “Testing 1, 2, 3”. I have a high threshold for tolerating bands that sing about the pressures of stardom or the struggles to maintain an identity, but “Celebrity” just rubs the wrong way. While the song is more or less a stereotypical invective against the hollowness of celebrity and fame, the inside-the-game narrator’s perspective makes the criticism hard to swallow. Maybe it’s that the song opens an album by a band that has recently gained a good deal of status, but it comes off as an annoyingly whiny way to start things off. In contrast, “Testing 1, 2, 3” makes a much better and more sympathetic point. Robertson’s voice is recognizable as the lead on their most successful singles (see above), and when he sings, “If I / Shed the irony would everybody cheer me / If I acted less like me would I be in the clear?” followed by “Kind of like the last time, with a bunch of really fast rhymes / If we’re living in the past I’m / Soon gone”, it’s fairly obvious that this is a challenge to those who would pigeonhole BNL (or maybe just the idea of Robertson as “the rapper”). Of course, when you look back to “Another Postcard” as the lead single, it appears that ol’ Ed is still stuck where he was. And I still can’t help but think that sentiments like these are better left to bands like Reel Big Fish.
There are certainly more impressive tracks on Everything to Everyone than these. Much like Maroon, this album starts off with songs that sound like rather standard BNL tunes, but builds in complexity as the disc progresses. “Shopping”, which pairs up the goofy talents of Barenaked Ladies with the zany sounds of the Blue Man Group, has a bizarrely-‘80s spin to it, as if the song is meant to be a nail in the electroclash coffin, especially considering the cheekily banal lyrics celebrating shopping as the panacea cure. However, base lyrics aside, the song is a cornucopia of sound and filled with enough peppy hooks that it’s hard to think of it as anything less than winsome. “Upside Down”‘s accordion and violin touches give the song a vaguely Camper Van Beethoven feel, but it’s full of the buoyancy that an “up” Stephen Page seems to fill songs with. Then there’s “Aluminum”, which is Everything to Everyone‘s big laid-back rock number, and hits the sweet tooth of old-school BNL fans nicely.
But if there’s one thing about Everything to Everyone that I can point to as seemingly lacking, it’s the relative scarcity of storytelling songs. One of the strengths of BNL, going all the way back to Gordon, has been Page and Robertson’s ability to paint a picture of characters that are both ambiguous and yet wholly recognizable. One of the best examples of this is Stunt‘s “Light Up Your Room”, which I think is one of the most underrated BNL songs of all time. These were also the songs that seemed to capture one of BNL’s most endearing traits: the ability to write wistful, lonely, sad songs that could simultaneously be uplifting in their jangle-pop settings. And for all that, the song from Everything to Everyone that most definitely needed to be made public is “War on Drugs”. Beautiful and complex, this ballad hits the country touches lightly that other tracks here (“For You”, “Take It Outside”) stumble and clunk on. While those songs sound like BNL’s bad attempts to hit the country-pop charts, “War on Drugs” is folksy enough and continually building and doesn’t bore, but is thoroughly engaging in the song’s pondering of depression and suicide.
The blunt yet clever “Unfinished”, dripping in Beach Boys harmonies, and the ambiguously political “Second Best” are both enjoyable songs in their own right, but aren’t enough to save “Take It Outside” and “Have You Seem My Love?” from weighing down the end of the album with overly sentimental and weightless songs that border on filler. Oddly enough, the initial release of Everything to Everyone comes with three acoustic bonus tracks of album cuts (“Another Postcard”, “Maybe Katie”, and “Second Best”). The strangest thing about this is that, while it’s meant to be a bonus for the fans, it leaves long-time listeners wondering if maybe BNL shouldn’t have gone to back to the old ways with this disc. Rather than sounding spare and rough like demos, these tracks could have been pulled from Gordon or Maybe You Should Drive, and in some ways, these acoustic versions actually sound better.
Still, Everything to Everyone certainly isn’t a total loss. If the disc’s title and the opening track “Celebrity” are meant to be comments on the odd situation that BNL finds itself in now, as well as a general statement on our society, at least they prove that they can still write some songs that are meaningful enough and musical enough to be worth recording, even if they can’t actually be everything to everyone. No, it’s not a bad disc, but it could stand to have a few weak tracks lopped off and the order shuffled a bit, and at long last the polish has gotten to be a bit too much. For what it’s worth, I’m sure I’ll return to it now and again, and it’s certainly not awful or even a stumble enough to make me lose my faith in Barenaked Ladies. And like the song says, “You can always get it right next time, next time”.