In Brief: Steven Page and the Barenaked Ladies were better off together, but for his part, Page comes out with stronger material after the split.
When the Barenaked Ladies made the startling announcement in early 2009 that lead singer and co-founder Steven Page was leaving the band, I was pretty surprised, but assured at the same time that they’d be OK. It came at a time when songwriting and lead vocal duties within the band were starting to get spread around more, with a lot of Ed Robertson‘s output being arguably better than Page’s in the latter years, and also Kevin Hearn and Jim Creeggan getting a little more time in the spotlight. I didn’t realize until I’d given several spins to All in Good Time, the Ladies’ first post-Page album, that while the remaining members could still manage a decent album, they were actually missing a lot of their bite without Page’s input. You see, I liked Robertson for being the cheeky, clever guy – the one who would whip out the goofy rapid rhyming and hype up a crowd, but who could also show surprising sensitivity on some of the group’s softer songs, which often got overlooked in favor of the novelty material. Trouble is, Page had a habit of writing more confrontational, penetrating lyrics that could really cut to the bone, and so when Ed was no longer the balancing factor to some of Steven’s downer songs, it left the group in more of a likeable, but mostly harmless state (aside from “You Run Away” the much-talked about farewell to Steven that Ed wrote). That’s not to slight either songwriter. Both do what they know best. But the whole was definitely better than the parts.
I didn’t realize how much I missed Steven Page until he dropped a solo album. Not that he hadn’t done work outside of the BNL before – there was The Vanity Project, which he made with frequent songwriting collaborator Stephen Duffy, and a covers disc entitled A Singer Must Die, but 2010’s Page One seems to be the first true solo release credited to Steven Page alone. (This despite Duffy still being as much of a co-conspirator as he was on many of Page’s earlier songs for the BNL.) On the surface, one might be fooled into thinking Page never parted ways with the group – he’s the most recognizable face and voice from the band, and unless you’re intimately familiar with the group’s musical quirks and backing vocals, you’d probably never catch on until you were three or four tracks into the album, and it slowly began to dawn on you that there hadn’t been any Robertson vocals yet. (Ironically, Maroon wasn’t far from this.) The music is bouncy and catchy as ever – just good old fun-loving dork rock with the occasional theatrical flourish, some of which might be surprising to casual fans of the ladies, but most of which wouldn’t seem to far afield to someone familiar with the group’s back catalogue. Intersperse the new Page songs with the songs from All in Good Time, and you’d have a pretty solid double album. I bet you could fool people who didn’t know better with that. But there’s an important reason for these songs being Page’s, and Page’s alone.
The tone of Page One is actually a lot more caustic than Page ever was with the Barenaked Ladies, when you really listen to it. Underneath the cheery, poppy veneer, Page’s words are often quite cynical, ripping into conventional notions of relationships and marriage and happiness in general, just to take it all apart and question it. It isn’t directly malicious, so much as it’s an act of self-examination – the words of a man who fell on hard times concerning both his personal life and his public image, and who decided the best artistic outlet for it was to have a good chuckle at his own expense. The mood of the music and the tone of the lyrics are going to be tough for some listeners to reconcile, but to me, that’s what makes the difference between a record which ultimately shows some wisdom, and a record which just drones on and on at a turgid and depressing pace. Steven still sounds like he had fun writing and recording these songs, like it was therapeutic to pick himself apart in this way. Truthfully, it seems like those last few years with the BNL were kind of holding him back. He’ll probably have a lower profile outside of the group, and the group for their part probably won’t be as successful, but if both are making the music they truly want to make, I still consider that a win/win situation.
Page One is also notable for some of its musical left turns. There’s a fair share of bouncy, radio-friendly material to start with, but also some acoustic numbers that will hopefully take you by surprise. Even one or two showtunes. Page is surprisingly good at role playing, and so even when his songs voice the thoughts of a total cad, you can’t help but root for the guy anyway. And then he turns around and says something that demonstrates real sensitivity and understanding to a tune so lovely you could swear you heard it in a dream, just when you thought it was all cynicism and backhanded compliments. It’s fun to follow Page One in its romp across the musical map, because it’s a record that seems to slowly come to the realization that having everything isn’t everything.
1. A New Shore
No time to waste! Steven’s voice hits the ground running with the peppy strum of an acoustic guitar as he launches into a song that’s part vintage BNL and part sea shanty. Bouncy melody, cheery backing vocals, and a few orchestral flourishes give Steven all the support he needs for this tale of an adventure that maybe he embarked on voluntarily, or maybe he was pushed overboard. That’s how he tells it, anyway, imagining himself as the hapless captain of a ship set adrift. It’s disorienting, but he firmly declares “I would rather be at sea than be alone”. It seems like the song has completely flown by when it comes to a premature home, but then it picks up again after a brief instrumental break with Steven bellowing in his most outlandish, operatic voice: “Land ho!” Fun stuff.
It’s no mistake that I singled out Maroon as the Barenaked Ladies’ most Page-dominated record earlier. In some ways, that record was where he came into his own as a songwriter, and he seems to be at his strongest when he reminds me of that record. This track, quite obviously a lead single, echoes the giddy rhythm and intentionally dorky hand claps of “Too Little Too Late”, giving us a short burst of classic 90’s pop goodness in the form of a song about the joys of being unable to make up one’s mind. One of my favorite aspects of Page’s songwriting is how the lyrics turn back on themselves unexpectedly, and the chorus is a great example of this: “Be prepared for indecision/It might make me disappear/But then again/My addiction to indecision keeps me here.” Similar metaphors are used and abused to suit his purposes throughout the song, making it both intelligently written and a thing of twisted joy to sing along to. You never want to be as messed up as the characters in Page’s songs, but it’s fun to put on the hat and play pretend.
3. Clifton Springs
Thank God that Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” is in the public domain, or else Steven would be in for the biggest lawsuit this side of Joe Satriani. He can change the meter to 6/8 and skip all over it with cheery “ba-da-da”s all he wants, but that’s still the infamously bright chord progression that seemingly every popular musician in the last forty years has ripped off. (Rob Paravonian must be tearing his hair out right about now.) I can’t complain. It fits Steven’s trademark of matching cheerful music to cynical lyrics, since the song revisits a place “where it all went wrong”, where he seems to have flushed his entire life down the drain. The more I read into this, the more I think it’s probably an uncomfortably autobiographical song, but regardless of the real-life implications, it’s one of the most lyrically meaty tracks on the record, full of wry twists and turns as Steven looks back on his life and sees something of a maturing process happening in reverse. I love how the song is lushly produced but not overdone – it’s the sort of pleasant thing you could lull yourself to sleep with if not for the jarring effect of the self-effacing lyrics. I like that, rather than just getting the confessions out of his system and wallowing in his misery, Steven leaves a lot of the exact events open to interpretation. That makes the story more relateable without getting so general about it that it bows down to the lowest common denominator.
One of the album’s most vicious and biting songs also happens to be its most danceable, eschewing the typical pop/rock arrangement for an otherworldly electronic dance/pop approach, but keeping the beat light to put the emphasis on the vaguely Eastern tones of Steven’s ingeniously addictive melody. He pulls no punches here – this is a song about being a bad, bad boy and getting away with it, because well, you’re famous. In some ways, the music – which is exotic but somewhat hazy and indistinct – hints at the vapid facade of it all, as he pines after a woman who is famous for no apparent reason and tells her all the things he’d like to do with her… and her entourage. Among the best lines is this little gem: “You’re a baby, you’re a punk/I only love you when I’m drunk/I’m alcoholic.” (Get it? He always loves her.) I love that the character he plays here (at least, I hope to God it’s a character) is so bold as to declare “now we’re through with morality”, and yet you can sense the emptiness behind the apparent freedom he’s experiencing. You have to read between the lines to get the most out of Page’s songwriting, I think.
5. Marry Me
Crashing headlong back into geeky pop/rock territory is this brash, percussion-heavy number, in which Steven skewers the notion of blind romanticism, drums crashing and guitars ringing loudly behind him. He’s not down on the institution of marriage itself, so much as the notion that true love is a little more than what a lot of young lovers make it out to be. In describing the haste to walk down the aisle, he once again confronts his own fear of commitment and seems to question whether the apparent road to “happily ever after” is all it’s cracked up to be. There are a few lyrical misfires here – mostly places where I feel like he forced an awkward rhyme or two – but it’s still a fun blast of a song that says what it needs to say and gets out of the way.
6. All the Young Monogamists
This is where you might really think Steven’s looking down on the idea of marriage if you’re not paying attention. What sounds like it started as a simple acoustic number is built up by lovely strings and woodwinds, almost making fun of the prim and proper classical piece a young couple might walk down the aisle to. He remembers a time when he was young and stupid, and went into a relationship with eyes closed, just assuming he’d be the good guy and never get tempted to color outside the lines. Then trouble hit. or maybe boredom set in. It seemed like he and his lover were looking at these young people and reminiscing about their own glory days, which I guess they’re doing, but the story takes a very sour turn as he predicts trouble in their futures: “Some of them will just grow tired/Some of them will flee/Some of them will sleep around/Just like you and me”. That’s when all considerations of putting this on a mix for your high school sweetheart go out the window. But hang in there, he’s got something worth saying despite all the cynicism, because in the end, he acknowledges the hard lessons learned and comes back around to see himself and his lover, eyes now wide open, willing to make a renewed commitment. “I will always be true to you.” Are they being willingly naive, or making that promise with a greater understanding of the difficulty of keeping it? Interpret it how you like. It’s a delicate, thoughtful, and ultimately lovely song, albeit a bit uncomfortable the first few times you listen to it.
7. She’s Trying to Save Me
Oh, man. As soon as the chirpy melody and rubbery bass kick in, the inherent dorkiness of the song gives me flashbacks to Steven and the gang doing that ridiculous dance in the “Enid” video. Yep, it’s that kind of song, where the music may as well have been written for a children’s album (ironically, actually doing one of those with the BNL was not Steven’s idea), but the lyrics are decidedly more grown-up. Well, in a way. They’re about a man being rather childish and a woman exhausting all possible options to try to rescue him from himself. He can see what she’s doing, but he assumes that he’s so far gone, she must be crazy for thinking she can make a difference. It’s kind of sad, but the music is so purposefully insipid that you won’t get that vibe from it unless you’re really paying attention. (It even briefly transforms into a loopy waltz at the end, just to drive home the image of the carnival that is this man-child’s mind.)
8. Over Joy
Getting a little more serious now (though not too serious – we’ve only scaled back to mid-tempo, and there’s a cowbell in this one, for gosh sakes) is this honest look at a man’s depression. You know how it looks from the outside when people are really bummed about something and they can’t seem to help but be a total Debbie Downer about it when people are trying to cheer them up? Steven wants us to see that person’s mentality from the inside – the reasons why they would consciously choose “doom and gloom over joy”. I’m not 100% sure the song convinces me that this is reasonable, but I’ve been there at times, so I can relate somewhat. The melody here is nagging me – I feel like I’ve heard its simple run up and down the scale somewhere else before. I can’t quite identify it, so I’ll let it slide. We’ve already established that even when Page is nicking melodies from much older influences, he gets interesting results.
9. If You Love Me
Putting this and “Over Joy” back to back kind of creates a brief lag in my interest at this point in the album – we’re back to upbeat and bouncy, but despite a vaguely disco-sounding intro that sounds like it might lead somewhere interesting, Steven falls back on giddy dork rock again, which is quite possibly overkill coming so soon after “she’s trying to save me”. I normally don’t mind when Steven or other members of the BNL get so intentionally goofy with a song, but the jerky dance rhythm and the overbearing synthesizer riff here are just a bit much. it doesn’t help that the lyric is uncharacteristically lazy for Steven – he tries his best to pack the verses with backhanded compliments to a girl he’s trying to woo, but ultimately settles for this bland refrain – “If you love me, everything will be alright.” The irony isn’t pronounced enough to make it funny or deviously clever. Assuming he’s saying it ironically at all. I tend to assume that’s a given whenever Steven says anything nice about anybody in a song. But it’s usually more subversive. Despite some attempts to have fun soloing on the guitars and synths during the bridge, this one’s pretty skippable.
10. Leave Her Alone
Whoa, where’d this come from? If you didn’t know Page had a love for showtunes before, then this oughta give it away – he’s gone all Michael Bublé on us with a big-band arrangement, heavy on the horns and the “classy lounge” sort of feel. Just to keep the lyrical dissonance intact, this one skewers a couple who seems to be so bored with each other that no amount of living it up and gallivanting across the globe can salvage the relationship. So they just sort of drag their misery with them wherever they go. (I realize I’m not making this sound like much fun, but once again, it’s the over-the-top-ness of the music that makes it work.) Page gets uncharacteristically bawdy with the line “From hell to hell/You went to Paris, but Paris was sh*tty/And subsequent cities were sh*tty as well.” (I have to admire the alliteration, but man, he better think about changing that lyric up if he ever tours this album in France. Or, more likely, Quebec.) It seems like he’s giving her a hard time for coming to the conclusion that she should just stay indoors and never let the outside world affect her any more – you can decide for yourself whether “Leave her alone” is a command for people to stop harassing her, or a wish that she be left to her own devices. Page gets bonus points for a verse about crossing the equator which, in addition to being a nice thematic callback to “A New Shore”, also makes a rather obscure reference to the practice of line-crossing ceremonies that were essentially the nautical version of fraternity hazing.
11. Queen of America
Back to the dorky dance-pop now… this one’s a little more blatantly 80’s inspired. Steven gets a little more topical here, and it could be a critique of fanatical patriotism to the point of excluding others who don’t fit your idea of “American” (which would be an interesting observation for a Canadian to make), or it could be a cynical comment about gay culture getting hijacked for commercial gain, or it could be… gosh, I don’t know. Steven’s all over the map with this one, even managing to invoke Godwin’s Law by comparing whoever he’s talking about to the freaking Nazis. Then there’s this creepy low voice at the end of the song which apparently has its national anthems confused: “God save our noble Queen/Sweet man of liberty/Of thee I sing.” I’m sure there’s a point to all of this, but I’ll admit it’s going over my head.
12. The Chorus Girl
To close, we have a show-stopping ballad, which soothes our sense with a wistful melody that… oh, you’ve gotta be kidding. Pachelbel’s Canon again? At least for the first few chords, that’s what it sounds like, just waaaaayyy slowed down this time. It seems to be an ode to the muse who set Steven straight when he was at his most down and out, and as such, it’s the album’s most unflinchingly honest track. “There’ll be no waiting limos/No cocaine and discos/I gave that all up for the chorus girl.” Who this woman is remains a mystery – maybe she’s an actual singer, maybe his wife, maybe someone who just inspires him, maybe someone he never even met. But as more and more voices and instruments get piled on in tribute to this woman, the song – and indeed the entire album – seems to come to a sad but beautiful realization of how all of these other hollow pursuits were just missing the point. I love how it climaxes and then gradually fades, bringing back in the simple piano chords that opened the song.
It’s too bad that Page One seems to have only met with modest success in Canada, and seems to remain virtually unheard of here in the United States. It’s a curious record that is worth hearing, for those who can tolerate a good dose of skepticism and Steven’s manic musical moods. Popular opinion seems to be that the Barenaked Ladies were over a long time ago, so I’m sensing some resistance both to Page’s attempt at going it alone as well as the band’s attempt to continue without him. And while I have my hopes that they might someday reconcile, I think each should be given credit for the merits that they’ve demonstrated on their own – especially Page, who could have just as easily disappeared from the music biz altogether after being rather publicly embarrassed. I respect an artist who can own his failures and make something good out of them. And if he ever puts out a Page Two, I’ll be one of the first in line to hear it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
A New Shore $1.50
Clifton Springs $1.50
Marry Me $1
All the Young Monogamists $1.50
She’s Trying to Save Me $1
Over Joy $.50
If You Love Me $0
Leave Her Alone $1.50
Queen of America $.50
The Chorus Girl $1.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.