In October of 2004 there were two men on the North American continent who had no cause to be forgiven: Bill Buckner of 1986 World Series infamy and Brad Roberts of the Crash Test Dummies. When the Boston Red Sox finally won baseball’s highest honor after 86 years, many fans considered their curse’s lift as a signal to “forgive” Mr. Buckner, through whose legs a Mets grounder rolled through on route to a Game 6 collapse during the late Reagan years. Buckner, when asked for comment, wanted no part of this spiritual charity. What did he have to be forgiven for? Freak baseball blunders happen all the time; this one just came at the wrong time. Likewise, fluke number one radio hits happen, coming out of left field to float a name like Crash Test Dummies through households all over the globe until unrealistic hype pops it with a pin. VH1 has been riding Roberts’ ass for ten years on account of “Mmmm, Mmmm, Mmmm, Mmmm”, neglecting the rest of his catalog with taunts of “one-hit wonder” the way Sox fans gloss over Buckner’s achievements. So with the release of Songs of the Unforgiven, let both men remain so. It’s time for reassessment.
Songs of the Unforgiven is by no means perfect, but it will surprise anyone casually acquainted with tunes like “Afternoons and Coffeespoons” and “Superman’s Song”. The album was recorded at the Sacred Heart Church in Duluth, Minnesota, a city otherwise semi-famous for being the home of indie stalwarts Low. Low’s lan and Mimi even turn up on a couple tracks to lend a hand with drums and guitar, which is not as strange a pairing as it may seem. The couple’ atmospheric sensibilities and subtle spirituality match up well with this set. The arrangements of songs like “The Wicked and the Evil” and “The Beginning of the End” are sparse and resonant, with bells, chimes and organs fleshing out folkish structures. Roberts’ unmistakable boom of a voice is given free reign to stretch out in the hall’s acoustics. His voice has aged slightly in a decade, but it still croaks with theatricality. It’s also the fulcrum on which the album teeters, for better or worse.
Early Dummies songs delighted in jokes, with a light-heartedness that belied their often philosophical themes. When Roberts posed the question, “How does a duck know what direction south is / And how to tell his wife from all the other ducks?”, his yawping voice was in accordance with the song’s goofiness. His work on Songs of the Unforgiven is blatantly more serious. On “The Unforgiven Ones”, Roberts sings about, “The rock that ships run up against / No matter how they tack / The murderers and the murdered ones / And the ones who don’t come back”, with the same bellowing croon of old. How does this deep sobriety play? Frankly, it takes a little getting used to. At times Roberts’ voice reflects the gravity of his subjects with precision, as on the lovely duet with Suzzy Roche on “There Is No Final Winner”. At other times, it threatens toward self-parody.
Occasional near-miss aside, Songs of the Unforgiven is a welcome return from a unique songwriter who never really went away. Songs like “Come Down to the Sink Hole” and “Sonnet 1” demonstrate a remarkable ability to write direct lyrics without becoming maudlin, to be adventurous and thoughtful without useless flash. And the able ensemble backing the 17 songs and interludes is equally as appropriate and occasionally just plain gorgeous. So take back any thought of forgiving the Crash Test Dummies. Welcome them instead.