Vulnerable otherwise probably to lumping in with such “comedy” acts as They Might Be Giants and Liam Lynch, Toronto’s Barenaked Ladies gave us something in 1998’s album number four Stunt that seems to breathe musical fire and prove that they did seem to have some mission as a collective other than just being a bunch of oafs.
Well, how’s this for irony: Stunt is the first album that the band self-produced and it’s also administrative of what undeniably are the band’s two best songs, “One Week” and “It’s All Been Done,” each of which stray refreshingly from the band’s former m.o. of spoofing things with acoustic juvenile tongue-in-cheek. “One Week” is their biggest single to date and unleashes a vocal part good enough to make up for lines like “I like a stinkin’ achin’ shake”, like a rap done in melody in some amalgamated white-boy dream (the impetus to be black whilst also incorporating all your nerdy musical influences into the proceedings which would be like… maybe Bowie, if it’s possible to be influenced by Bowie).
That’s the biggest one but my favorite by far is “It’s All Been Done,” a Dionysian cosmonaut’s plaint from atop a mountaintop to cap off the pre-streaming era in style.
In general, I don’t think there’s any question that 1998 seemed like a time when things were still coming together, in music. There were several ebullient genres, mainstream rap (Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz, Missy Elliott, Master P), electronica (Bjork, Crystal Method, Moby) and alt-rock (Fastball, Marcy Playground, Everclear and my aforementioned beloveds here) that were all gaining steam and galvanizing lives to the point where nobody would have thought about paying attention to like the 25th anniversary of Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy, with all due respect to that pithy, jazzy quartet from New York fully bestowed.
Maybe we didn’t realize how close to the end we were. One thing’s for sure: one night in March 1999 when our high school ski club was coming back from an outing, “It’s All Been Done,” furnished right there on our South Bend, Indiana pop radio station, prompted a singalong session amongst the rowdy high schoolers so loud and spirited that the bus driver actually yelled at them to be quiet. It was an entire bus of Caucasian skiers, basically, fresh off their 25-odd runs at Southern Michigan’s Swiss Valley, witnessing the end, nay, the rabbit’s cry, of music as they knew it, and you know what, they knew it. To listen to it today, it plays as a blindingly poignant paean to cultural progress, seeming to presage an age of solely information and no feeling, and Steven Page’s voice undulates with a certain color of brilliance which seems to say, it is the late ‘90s, we have to be as funny as Reel Big Fish, Everclear and Harvey Danger, but da**, that doesn’t mean we don’t love music, and we didn’t want to see it end this way.
Would you think I was a giant douche bag if I told you I found Blink-182 kinda… like… awesome? And as you might suspect, if you read me at all, the reasons don’t really pertain to stylistics that much (I don’t think many Masters theses have been written about pop-punk). Well, sh**, they take themselves as seriously as a flying squirrel caught in a honey bucket, so why wouldn’t their music be some least common denominator Green Day ape? It’s fun. That’s the point.
Take the video for “All the Small Things.” This is a song best enjoyed in conjunction with the video’s viewership, tailor made for the MTV age, which lasted up through about 1999, the year Enema of the State dropped, surrounded by a bizarre war between Eminem and boy bands that seemed millennia removed from Smashing Pumpkins – Adore and Everclear – So Much for the Afterglow, rather than just the one year that it actually was. They pull out all the stops here, making fun of boy bands, stripping down to their skivvies which of course are really dorky tighty whities, and in general show that life is all about donning whatever current mask is the most fun to freakin’ put on.
But take a listen to Enema of the State and you’ll hear just how underrated this band is juxtaposed to today, especially in terms of feeling and meaning. My exhibit A here is “Aliens Exist,” track three on Enema of the State.
There’s lots of funny and bizarre things going on here, such as the lines “You used to read me stories / As if my dreams were boring” (as if just the memories of his dreams give him endless entertainment) and the proposition of “What if people knew that these were real?” Listening to it again, too, I can’t help but wonder at the people who said this band sucked or that they never practiced: they are indeed tight, and pack just a tad more of a punch than Green Day did in production (with the possible exception of “Brain Stew”), so that this was indeed new-sounding music in the late ’90s. So along with the usual bit**ing about women (“Girls are such a drag”, et. al.), we at least on Enema of the State get some forays out into existential rumination in the form of this and some other notable sort of life zoom-outs and philosophical bouts.
“Adam’s Song” is one I’ll keep going back to, third single off the album, sung from the point of view of a dearly departed, if you will. I think if I were to really sit back and let “Adam’s Song” hit me, it would induce a crying fit that would last for like 50 years. I would have to have food pumped in through a hole in my gut. Hearing it at work yesterday, I had to basically willfully detach all emotion from what I was experiencing, in order to retain coherent concentration on the tasks I had at hand.
So this “Adam” is a member of the human race gone too soon, in his late teen years, from what it sounds, the chorus repeating the line “16 just held such better days”. Within the song, the band sort of toy with humor, almost as if to disguise the noxious amount of feeling they’re offering within the tune’s innards, mocking Nirvana with an “I took my time / Hurried up / The choice was mine / I didn’t think enough” stanza there in the first verse. To be honest, all the while it seems like a sort of time release thing to be amusing to teenagers but to really hit you when you get older, especially if you’re the introverted type for whom a nighttime social outing can sometimes feel like a plunge into sub-Arctic waters.
Aimee Bender once said “The most unbearable thing in life is hope.” And I was glad to read that, because part of me knew that not only did I not fu**ing get what the he** she was talking about, but I knew I NEVER WOULD get it. Bender was deeper than me, so to speak. She felt things more keenly than me. I was grateful for that. I was seeking any diversion, anything.
The protagonist in “Adam’s Song” relates an account of the conclusion of a certain social outing of some sort, whose nature is left largely unassembled, with the joyful exclamation that “The journey was over / We’d survived”. The operation then turns its ugly wheels into Adam’s ensuing desire: “I couldn’t wait ‘til I got home / To pass the time in my room alone”.
So we see how it’s these swings, these fluctuations, of perspective, that are so deadly, when something is so hard, when the effort required to complete something is so monumental and crushing, that when it’s over, you’re so sure that you’ve conquered the world, when really it was just that challenging for you to be yourself, to really step out from behind your veil and show yourself to the outside world around, which could judge you any way under the sun. I have no idea if “Adam’s Song” is actually about a real person they knew or not (really I should probably know this but I’ve never been the inquisitive type I guess)… it almost seems so cemented into singer Mark Hoppus’ understanding of himself that it comes across as entirely his own creation, the “The journey was over / We’d survived” emanating forth like a readymade sort of death of the mind, or spirit, a person so sodden with emotional exhaustion that even if you knew them and you loved them, they wouldn’t be able to process you, would just as soon cast you off. And that is a real death of veritable pungency, to end all discussion.
A beautiful piano run also inundates the middle of “Adam’s Song,” making for some nice stylistic levity and earmarking some refreshing punctiliousness on the part of this band for this album centerpiece.