"Some stupid number one hit single has got me in this mess!" The line from Barenaked Ladies' debut album, Gordon, proved prescient for the band following the success of "One Week" from their 1998 smash Stunt. The band had always crafted a whimsical blend of the somber and the comedic, yet they had garnered notoriety mostly for their humorous work, and the frenetic, pop culture-referencing song only further established them as a clever but glib band in the minds of critics and the general public.
Set on surmounting the novelty band stigma, the Ladies toned down their customary quirkiness a bit on their next two albums--Maroon (2000) and Everything to Everyone (2003). However, Reprise sought to capitalize on more rapid-rhyming singles, releasing "Pinch Me" and "Another Postcard" as lead singles for the albums. "Pinch Me" reached #15 on the Hot 100 and Maroon went platinum, but the downright inane "Another Postcard" received little airplay, and Everything to Everyone sold poorly. Disappointed with Reprise's promotional support (or lack thereof), the band left their long-time label in 2004 to form Desperation Records.
The common critical assessment of the band's new album, Barenaked Ladies Are Me, is that it's BNL's first "mature" album. Although such an assessment shows some critics' relative ignorance of Barenaked Ladies' entire work as well as an apparent forgetfulness of their own work (many writers hailed Maroon and Everything to Everyone as the band's "mature" albums), it's fair to say that a serious tone pervades the album. On songs like the acoustic-driven first single, "Easy," and the buoyant, sing-along-inducing "Bull in a China Shop," long-time songwriting partners Steven Page and Ed Roberston explore the familiar BNL themes of self-doubt and relationship complexities. Elsewhere the duo sharpen the political commentary that emerged on Everything to Everyone. The strongest of the politically-minded tracks (and perhaps the strongest song on the entire album) is "Maybe You're Right," which builds from sparse instrumentation to a resounding brass-filled finale. The album isn't devoid of BNL's trademark humor, though. On "Bank Job," a quirky waltz that could be the premise for a Cohen brothers' film, Robertson sings of a heist stymied by one of the robber's "crisis of conscience" when the bank is full of nuns. And, on "Wind It Up," the album's southern-rock closer, Robertson delivers possibly the funniest line of the album: "I was a baby when I learned to suck/But you have raised it to an art form."
Keyboardist Kevin Hearn and bassist Jim Creeggan also contribute some songwriting, with Hearn penning the Queen-esque "Sound of Your Voice" (sung by Page) and "Vanishing," and Creeggan providing "Peterborough and the Kawarthas." Hearn's songwriting contributions, including two other tracks on the deluxe edition, are his most prolific with the band, but his soft, colorless vocals are an acquired taste.
Despite many fans welcoming the band's continuing departure from fallacious ditties (No songs about postcards with chimps? Hallelujah!), some prefer early-era BNL (Gordon to be specific) and will no doubt be disappointed with the scarcity of BNL's customary hyperactivity. Of the thirteen tracks, only a handful could really be considered "peppy." Given that the band had written plenty of uptemo songs during the recording sessions--songs like "Running Out of Ink," "Down to Earth," and "Maybe Not," all of which are available on the deluxe edition of the album--one has to assume BNL consciously pursued a mellow vibe. The album doesn't really hit toe-tapping territory until the third song, "Sound of Your Voice," and two songs--the opening track "Adrift" and "Vanishing--are peaceful to the point of being downright somniferous.
Even though the album could use the jolt a song like "Running Out of Ink" would provide, the bulk of the material is by no means dull. The music is the sound of five guys who clearly enjoy the new-found freedom of making music on their own terms. BNL's greatest strength has always been their songwriting, and the album shows Page, Robertson, and Co. returning to form after the uneven Everything to Everyone. Barenaked Ladies Are Me not only surpasses its predecessor but also stands among the best work of the band's career.