It’s not exactly critically acceptable to be a fan of The Goo Goo Dolls. Ever since “Name”, which leads off this little compilation of Goo Goo Doll hits, became a worldwide smash, the Goos have more or less been pandering to the audience they culled from the tremendous radio play that that song brought them. As such, where once they were punk-leaning rock ‘n’ roll upstarts who happened to be one of the hidden treasures of my own native Buffalo, they had become the most famous sellouts that we could call our own. Lite adult contemporary with an electric edge has been their game of choice ever since, and it’s a game they’ve played to perfection on hit after hit, from the “Name” hangover that was “Slide” to the City of Angels soundtrack’s tremendous hit “Iris” to last year’s have-I-heard-this-before hit “Let Love In”. It’s as if Johnny Rzeznik and Robby Takac found the mathematical formula for chart success, a discovery they’ve been exploiting mercilessly ever since.
Quite frankly, it sickened me a bit, and a part of me deep down knew that if I were ever asked to write a review of anything to do with The Goo Goo Dolls, I would rip it apart just as mercilessly.
It took a city’s obsession with a hockey team to make it clear that I was missing the point.
The 2006-2007 edition of the Buffalo Sabres was from the start to the finish of the regular season the single most dominant team in the National Hockey league. After a disappointing playoff exit the previous season, there was a sense in Buffalo that this was it, this was the season we would stop pining over a championship and finally own one. With the playoffs a foregone conclusion almost since the drop of the puck in the first game, the regular season dragged on for what seemed like forever, until finally, on 12 April, the first playoff game against a feisty New York Islanders team was to take place. Before the game, the TV feed had an introductory montage for us, the typical sort of stuff we get here in Buffalo, showing those heartwarming images meant to find the beauty in average people going about their average business doing average things, interspersed with clips of the Sabres themselves getting ready for a game. And, of course, this being Buffalo, it was backed by The Goo Goo Dolls.
Specifically, the song was “Better Days”. And you know what? It totally worked. It worked on me, it worked on just about the entirety of Buffalo. Local blog chatter was all about what a fantastic montage that was at the beginning, and it all came back to the song. The chiming piano, the hopeful lyrics, it was all perfect for the sense that this was it. This was the year.
Despite the lack of a championship resulting from those playoffs, it’s still hard to look back on their beginning with anything but a wistful sense of nostalgia, and that has to be the doing of the Goos. “Better Days” carries with it a sense of universality, the sort of thing that kids, moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, and second cousins can all grab onto if they’re in the same room when it comes on. It drives forward without forcing itself on the listener, it’s just saccharine enough to be catchy, and it’s so ambiguous that it’s bound to apply to something in just about everyone’s life at some point. It’s pretty close to perfect in that way.
Coming to the realization that “Better Days” is actually just fine, then, brings the rest of the Goo Goo Dolls’ oeuvre into question, and as it turns out, despite the fact that they churn out their hits like a well-oiled machine, those hits are indeed hits for very good reasons.
Take that first hit, “Name”, for instance. Wikipedia has a quote up, attributed to songwriter and vocalist Johnny Rzeznik, that says he “wrote this song about feeling like I was wasting time, and my life; just wasting everything, and this song is what came out of it.” If you were listening to the radio at all in 1995, you heard this song a solid 100, 200, maybe 500 times. Did it ever occur to you that it was about wasting time and wasting life? Maybe it did. Maybe you were taken in by it, thought to study the lyric sheets, and ended up coming to that conclusion. More likely, however, you heard the song, thought “gee, that’s a nice song”, and then forgot about it. The single-line chorus of “and I won’t tell ‘em your name” could have meant any number of things on its own, and that’s all that most people took away from it, applying it to their own life in some way, forming some deeply personal connection that nobody else would share with the band.
The singles culled from Dizzy Up the Girl, the album that followed the massive success of “Name”, are at least a little bit about concrete subjects. “Slide” is apparently about teen pregnancy (though it seems to hold more resonance as a simple love song), and the incredibly popular “Iris”, perhaps the most musically accomplished of the band’s hits with its time signature changes and added orchestration, features lyrics based on the movie it was written for, namely the Nicholas Cage/Meg Ryan sobfest City of Angels. “Broadway” is even about the street in Buffalo, rather than its more famous counterpart in New York. Even then, however, the songs worked better on a higher level than the limiting scope of their intended subjects. Not everybody can relate to teen pregnancy, but almost all of us can relate to wanting to escape, to go far far away for a while with the love of our lives. Not everybody’s seen the Broadway in Buffalo, but almost all of us can relate to the occasional bout of hopelessness.
After Dizzy Up the Girl, it seems as though the Goos saw this trait in their music and started playing to it, leading to a less successful batch of singles. Despite the relative success of “Here is Gone”, 2002’s Gutterflower was generally slept on. It seemed that while the Goo Goo Dolls continued to maintain their presence on the radio, fewer and fewer people noticed it. The singles themselves are fine, but they feel unfocused. It seemed the band does universal better when they fall into it than when it is their intent. It’s a trend that has continued through last year’s Let Love In, though Rzeznik has gotten better at writing melodies, making Gutterflower feel a little bit like a transitional album.
And so it goes, Greatest Hits Volume One: The Singles is entirely predictable, not to mention chronological in its song order. Somehow, that seems to work for this band. If we forget about the early years of rocking hard and letting bassist Takac get a word in edgewise (which is exactly what this compilation does), this is a band that never wanted us to think too hard about what it was saying or how it was saying it. They just want the songs to be there, in your consciousness, in case something happens in your life that will allow one of those songs to connect to you. Whether the fact that they pull off this feat near-flawlessly in these 14 songs constitutes quality, I’m not sure. What I can be sure of, however, is that they’re not nearly as easily dismissed as I once assumed.