“Let the word out/ I’ve got to get out/ Oh I’m feeling better now,” sings Collective Soul lead singer Ed Roland in the chorus of “Better Now”, the first song on Collective Soul’s new album Youth, their first in four years. Four years is a long layoff for a band who were one of the most prolific during the ’90s alternative rock heyday, releasing five albums in six years and racking up a string of huge modern rock hits.
And there’s something about not just this song — which has a big, energetic pop hook set to a Cars-ish, robotic grind, and is spiked with a colorful layer of horns for color — but about the entirety of Youth that says that Roland probably IS feeling a bit better.
So here’s the bit where I toss any hipster cred to the wind — I make no apologies about my love for Collective Soul. Time has proven them to be the ’90s equivalent of Toto or REO Speedwagon or Styx or some such AOR band from the early ’80s, but that’s totally fine, because of all the commercial alternative bands who flooded the mainstream in the mid-’90s, these guys were one of the best. It’s true that their breakout single, “Shine”, which I never liked, was a bit too gunmetal-gray and safe, and it lead them to release a series of follow-up ballads that were drenched in well-meaning but ultimately hollow psychobabble and new age spirituality, the work of sensitive, modern, Southern men who were well read (the band do take their name from a line in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead) but didn’t quite know how to translate it to song.
But what was awesome about them was that they got AOR in a way that almost no one else in the ’90s did. They released albums quickly and furiously; each album was imperfect (they have no classics to their name) and peppered with a few songs aimed at what was then mainstream alt-rock radio’s jugular. They’d let two or three singles run their promotional course and then — bam! — drop another album before the public had a chance to forget. They’re the kind of band who wouldn’t have gotten a promotional budget past their second album had they not kept going, and they did, and unlike most mainstream bands of the 1990s (almost all of whom wound up falling prey to perfectionism), they built up a big catalog quickly. Their best radio singles bucked current trendsthe electro-boogie of “Precious Declaration”, the shimmery pop of “Listen”, the Devo-esque “Smashing Young Man”, and the power-ballad “Run” all sounded out of place on the radio–and if you like what you’ve heard by them on the radio, their albums (including such woefully underrated gems like Disciplined Breakdown and Blender) are all worth picking up.
So, now that they’re back and that they’re “reunited” even if there doesn’t seem to be much public outcry asking for such a thing, how can their new album be any good? Well, for the same reasons that their ’90s albums were better than they had any right to bethey ignore what the public thinks, they ignore the cool factor, and they just make good mainstream rock music.
Youth is really a logical progression from where they left off with 2000’s near-excellent Blender. Blender was by far the band’s slickest record, utilizing a mixture of new wave keyboards and club beats and pro-tools’ed shards of guitar (think Garbage, without sass) to create a modern, accessible rock record with slick surfaces that still have some bite. It was unfortunately their least successful record, largely because a) alternative radio moved on to far more aggressive things and b) Collective Soul were suffering from their own marketing crisis, tarting themselves up to look like some kind of a boyband and thus perhaps participating a little too actively in the very superficial and disposable times of the late ’90s and earliest 2000s. But a lot of fans (myself included) saw that Blender‘s slickness suited them better than the faux-grunge of their earliest recordings because we always saw them as a successor to arena rock, not indie rock. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Youth wisely rewinds on the parts of that formula that didn’t work (no prettying up of the band in the promo photos this time) and saves the parts that did (wonderfully crisp, modern, danceable, uptempo rock and roll) to create the ideal comeback record. And, like every Collective Soul record, it contains some gems, including the aforementioned “Better Now”, plus the similar “There’s a Way” and “Feels Like (It Feels Alright)”. The first single, “Perfect to Stay”, is a shining example of the band’s R.E.M.-ish side, a gorgeously autumnal ballad that seems to speak about the confusion and reduction of all events to “Sims”-like predictability that hits in early adulthood (lines like “She said good day boy/ Are you ready to shake?/ I said I love noise/ And this life that it makes/ See I have a line, though it’s subject to change/ I once had a thought, but then I gave it away/ But sooner or later, I’ll be perfect to stay”), and is a sure highlight.
Youth isn’t perfect — I could just as easily list the songs that I’m NOT crazy about — but that’s not the point. None of those AOR greats put out perfect albums, but they put out thoroughly listenable albums sprinkled with songs destined to be big singles. Youth is Collective Soul’s first step away from a major — it’s released on their own imprint, El Music Group, so it’s probably not destined to produce any hits on par with their earlier material. But this band is so well-intentioned, so likeable, and they produce such consistently enjoyable albums that it’s hard not to find that I’m just plain happy to have them back, and to have a sixth good Collective Soul album on the rack.
On most days, I might listen to Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse, Fountains of Wayne, The Streets, Dizzee Rascal, The Killers, and all sorts of other, “cool” bands who are quite good and put out really good albums. Collective Soul may not be deemed as cool, and none of their albums may be “changing rock and roll”, but they’re just as worthy of affection.