It’s not often that you get to hear both sides of the story in a musical split. But Steven Page’s departure from the Barenaked Ladies in early 2009 was a bit unusual. Page was co-founder and he co-led the band, with Ed Robertson, for 20 years. When he left the band, the Barenaked Ladies decided to continue on as a quartet, with Robertson moving into the frontman role. As both were singers and songwriters in the band, it isn’t surprising that both men have addressed the situation on their latest albums.
The Barenaked Ladies put out All in Good Time, their first Page-less album, back in March. That record has several songs that seem to address Page’s departure directly, including opener “You Run Away”, in which Robertson says “I tried to be your brother/You cried, and ran for cover/I made a mess, who doesn’t?/I tried my best, but it wasn’t enough”, all but calling Page out by name. It seems clear that the rest of the band was not at all pleased with Page’s decision to leave them.
Now, six months later, we have Page’s new solo album, Page One. The album’s opening track, “A New Shore”, also seems to address the situation. As you would expect, his take is a bit sunnier. Page puts things in terms of a nautical journey, complete with upbeat acoustic guitars, whistling, and a happy-sounding string arrangement. “I’m relinquishing command/For something I don’t understand/This man’s about to turn his whole life upside down” he sings before he continues, “I set a course for a new shore/It looked the same as the one before/And I forgot what I was sailing for/And why I thought this time would be different”.
After 20 years in the music business, Page seems to be acknowledging that leaving his band and striking out on his own won’t suddenly make everything easier for him. He follows up that opener with first single “Indecision”, a song that shifts between a hooky, electric guitar-driven chorus and quieter, slightly calypso-flavored verses. These lyrics seem to be about sticking with the Barenaked Ladies for as long as he did. “Be prepared/For indecision/It might make me disappear/But then again/My addiction/To indecision/Keeps me here”, he croons. Lyrically, these two songs seem to take on the situation in a relatively direct fashion. Musically, both are catchy, sturdy pop songs — the kind that Barenaked Ladies specialized in while Page was in the band.
After this beginning, though, Page begins to branch out. “Clifton Springs” is a melancholy waltz that would be a good song if it wasn’t so reminiscent of the much more deeply affecting BNL song “Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel”. “Entourage” is an Indian-flavored track with fluttering synths, pounding field drums, and exotic woodwinds. “If You Love Me” is a full-on 80’s-style pop song, complete with a glossy production sheen, tinny guitar tones, and cheesy synths that seem to come straight out of a Nu Shooz song. It’s an interesting stylistic experiment, but it also shows that just because you can replicate the sound of another era, it doesn’t mean you should. Much more successful is “Leave Her Alone”, a swingin’ Rat Pack-style song with a full big band that also utilizes some subtle synths and crunchy guitars to set it apart from the original era. It also helps that Page’s big, brassy voice is much more suited to this style, which puts the focus directly on his vocals.
The rest of Page One mostly trades in upbeat pop-rock material of the kind you’d expect from the co-founder of BNL. There are lots of decently catchy songs about relationships, minus most of the wit that seems to have come largely from Robertson. Page tends towards being overly earnest, which generally suits his voice. Occasionally, though, he comes off as cloying. The orchestra-backed “All the Young Monogamists” exemplifies this. Page sings from the point of view of a couple with marital problems as they condescendingly watch happy young couples walking through the park. The arrangement is sweet, and the lyric idea is decent, but put together, it ends up being way over the top.
Once you get past Page’s side of the somewhat lurid he-said/he-said lyrical battle between him and Robertson, Page One ends up mostly reminding the listener that the Barenaked Ladies’ last really good album was Maroon back in 2000. Page shows that he still has the ability to write a great pop song here and there on this album, and most of the tracks are at least decent. But his collaborators here, longtime friend Steven Duffy and Craig Northey of The Odds, seem all too willing to go along with Page’s indulgences. This leads to a scatter-shot effort that is indeed everything one would expect from a Steven Page solo album, both the good and the bad.