BARENAKED LADIES 2021
Photo: Matt Barnes / Courtesy of Big Hassle

Barenaked Ladies Start Strong But Fade Fast on ‘Detour de Force’

On their 17th studio album Detour de Force, Barenaked Ladies semi-successfully walk the line between smart adult contemporary and cringey dad rock.

Detour de Force
Barenaked Ladies
Raisin' Records
16 July 2021

Over the past three decades, Barenaked Ladies have built up a sneaky amount of cultural cachet across generations. Certain middle-aged indie-rock fans may know them from early ’90s singles like “If I Had $1000000”. If you’re a millennial, there’s a good chance the lyrics to mega-hit “One Week” are permanently stamped on your psyche. There’s the theme from The Big Bang Theory, which reached untold millions of households over a dozen years. And if your parents were those early Gordon fans, you might even know Barenaked Ladies from their 2008 children’s album Snacktime!

The point being, for as long as most of us have listened to music, Barenaked Ladies have been part of the zeitgeist. And they’re back with Detour de Force, their 17th overall studio album and the first since 2017’s Fake Nudes.

It’s telling that the album’s three lead singles also happen to be its first three tracks. Self-aware as always, Ed Robertson and company put their best foot forward with aggressively catchy songs and fit into the adult contemporary slipstream without losing the template that makes the band unique. That’s catchy melodies, clever lyrics, and a dash of earnestness offset by a heaping dose of humor.

“Flip” harkens back to the Stunt and Maroon era of Barenaked Ladies, sort of a spiritual successor to “Pinch Me”. “New Disaster” is an absolute earworm with a tight pop structure, twisting lyrics (they rhyme “presentation” with “prestidigitation”), and a soaring chorus built for live shows. “New Disaster” and celebratory opener “Good Life” would both fit comfortably on a newer Rob Thomas record—at least until the rap breakdown. The rapping isn’t the highlight of either song, to be clear, but it’s far from unexpected. A roving musical eye is another defining feature of the band. Just check out the ill-advised power ballad shoehorned into the middle of “Internal Dynamo”.

Despite the radio-readiness of the lead singles, arguably the best track comes shortly after. “Big Back Yard” is a gentle ditty about the desire to find home: “All I ever wanted was a big back yard / With a porch for your mother and a deck of cards / Eighteen chickens and a St. Bernard / And a cat named Rudy in the big back yard.” The rhymes devolve slowly and charmingly: “All I ever wanted was a big back yard / With a path to the river not very far / A tub that bubbles and a ‘cue that barbs / And buffalo grazing in the big back yard.” It teeters on the edge of absurdity until they bring it around with just enough sentimentality: “All I ever wanted was a big back yard / I’ve been living so long with this hole in my heart / I became a drifter and began to roam / Now all I really want is a home.” It’s Barenaked Ladies at their finest, so expertly balanced between silly and sweet that Thanos would be proud.

The highs of Detour de Force are quite high, but they make the fall all the more noticeable. The album doesn’t so much dip in quality as drop off a cliff. “Roll Out” sounds like geriatric Florida Georgia Line, an attempt at a pump-up-the-party anthem that utterly fails with flatlined statements like, “If you think I’m kidding, you can kiss my dust” and “Be calm, carry on, turn it up, sing along.”

And then there are tracks where the band veers from smart and self-aware to just telling not-very-interesting stories about their day. During her SNL days, Tina Fey had a Weekend Update joke poking fun of Alanis Morrissette’s confessional lyrics, saying, “Alanis, not everything you write in your journal is a song.” Fey might as well have been talking about “Flat Earth” and “Bylaw”. The former is about the time a woman in a salon talked about astrology too much, and the latter recalls the day that construction started outside keyboardist/guitarist Kevin Hearn’s house at 7:00 am. He went out to complain that it was 7:00 am, but—guess what!—the bylaws state that work can begin at 7:00 am. He even works his name into the lyrics: “There’s a bylaw—and by law—It’s time to wake up Kevin.” Womp womp.

The final two-thirds of the album (aside from the gently meditative “Man-Made Lake”) ranges from forgettable to cringey, a wound that’s fully self-inflicted. Detour de Force is one of the longest albums in the band’s catalog, only losing out marginally to pre-streaming-era albums like 1992’s Gordon or 2006’s Barenaked Ladies Are Me. A little editing—just three or four songs—would have made a big difference.

So Barenaked Ladies is still in the zeitgeist, and it’s nice to see there’s some gas left in that tank. Will Detour de Force capture the imagination of yet another generation? Doubtful. But is there something here for diehard fans—and anyone who can still rap “One Week” from memory—to enjoy? Absolutely.

RATING 5 / 10
PopMatters