Steven Page, co-founder, frontperson, and "it's been" sayer of Barenaked Ladies, "parted ways" with the band in 2009. There are various reasons cited, a growing gap of artistic differences, Steven's apparent boredom, some people say Steven being arrested for cocaine (in his fucking apartment, fuck the police) while they were promoting a kids' album as a contributing factor.
Thirteen months later, the remaining members of Barenaked Ladies released All In Good Time, their first record without Steve. Other co-founder, lesser frontperson, and "chickety china the chinese chicken" sayer Ed Robertson took over as entire frontperson, writing and singing the majority of the songs where as on previous records he'd usually get around 30%.
You Run Away is the first song on All In Good Time - the first song we get to hear without Steve. It's mid-tempo, simple, and emotional.
"You run away. You could turn and stay, but you run away from me."
I V vi IV. The song has a climax in terms of volume and emotion, and a bridge that is rhythmically different, but there are no big surprises or grandiose tricks.
I thought this was a baaaad sign. I thought it was a poor choice for a single, a poor choice for a Track 1, a poor choice for an album track even! There were better songs cut from this album, including a song actually called "All In Good Time!" It set me up with low expectations for the rest of the album.
Critics and fans seemed to agree that this song was written about Steven - in his departure, he ran away from Ed, who tried to be his brother, who did his best but it wasn't enough. Ed has denied this.
"It was certainly a cathartic song to write," [Ed] says, and while he insists his lyrics aren't directed specifically at his former bandmate, Page's leaving was "a huge inspiration for the emotion behind it."
"They've denied it until they're blue in the face," [Steven] Page said Thursday. "I know what it's like to write songs with Ed -- not everything is a specific address to somebody else, but I also know that we've written songs about other people. Usually it's been fairly veiled and we are trying to make a point." [...] "I felt like some of (the lyrics weren't) true, first of all, but it made for a good song. [...] And for me, for a guy who's worked with him for so long, I felt like they could've done better, frankly."
Steve, I feel the same way. But even if it's not directed at Steve, this theory makes the song hit harder - maybe the song is as simple as it is because it was written as an emotional release. I think of Kevin's later song Tired Of Fighting With You, which is fine, but once you realize it's about his intermittent fight with cancer, it's heartbreaking. Knowing a story behind a song gives it more power, whether it's true or not. And with that, the author can be pronounced dead.
One lyric I want to scrutinize is the repeated "when you're older, look you in the eye." In the video, Ed is barreling down the camera accusingly. Intentional reference or not, I am reminded of a track from their previous album Barenaked Ladies Are Me, Peterborough and the Kawarthas. This song is seemingly about Jim leaving his young son to go on tour.
"I'm going early, won't wave goodbye, tell him I love him, look him in the eye."
Jim is able to look a toddler in the eye. Whoever hurt the narrator of You Run Away won't be able to do the same until they mature a little. That stings.
Steven Page took longer to release his first solo album away from Barenaked Ladies, which makes sense, because he had to find a band and producer and all that. The album Page One was released in October 2010, seven months after Barenaked Ladies released All In Good Time.
The first song on Page One is A New Shore, and it serves a similar role to that of You Run Away. It's like a synopsis, a summary of the prior events to explain how we got here. "Previously on Steven Page..."
There are concrete references to failing as captain of a band of merry sailors, that it doesn't matter if he jumped or was pushed overboard, the narrator even sings "this man's about to turn his whole life upside down," which the exhausted artist narrator in older Page-led BNL song Upside Down explicitly says he won't do:
"Nothing's good enough for me to shake me from complacency
I've made my mind up, I won't make a sound
And I will not turn my whole life upside down"
But Steve and Ed's "the story so far" songs do not have mutual audiences. You Run Away is told in second-person, like a letter written to the deserter. Steve's song, however, seems to be addressing the audience rather than the band of merry sailors he parted ways with. He is evoking the old trope of an adventurer who survived treacherous waters and came home to tell the tale, whether at the pub to fellow sailors over a pint of grog, or upon a Greek stage like Odysseus. Steve loves to be his own Greek chorus, and he loves writing songs about exhausted artists. Nothing is particularly new except that Steve is not distancing himself from his narrator.
"I was part-way through writing the song with Craig Northey before I realized what it was about. It's kind of my 'Solsbury Hill,' isn't it?" [Steven] asked, referring to Peter Gabriel's hit about the freedom he felt after leaving Genesis. "In the later years, I felt like I needed to wear a mask to go out with the Barenaked Ladies."
But it goes deeper than the lyrics. There are musical evocations of his former bandmates. There's an arco bass moment after the first chorus (okay, it's a cello but that doesn't matter, death of the author, remember?). Jim Creeggan, BNL bassist, is known primarily as an upright bass player. The bridge features a very Tyler Stewarty drum part - a simple fill repeated as the main beat for a whole section. The entire instrumental screams Kevin Hearn - there's a whimsical Steamboat Willie whistley keyboard solo, there's an accordion doubled with a glockenspiel. You could tell me this song was cut from any BNL album post-Y2K and I'd believe you.
Are these elements direct lampshading of "hey, this is the kind of music I used to be able to make when I was in a band?" I don't know. Yes. I'm going to go with yes. Because the rest of the album goes to different musical territory, some of which that Steve may have been unable to access in the confines of BNL. There are some stylish electronic songs (yes, FAR more stylish than what those nerds Tyler and Kevin have done.) There's a song arranged for a little chamber ensemble, which, if it were on a BNL record, they'd've had to have Ed pluck a damn guitar in there somewhere.
But A New Shore made me wonder: Steve had a hand in writing the vast majority of Barenaked Ladies songs; how much of BNL's sound is the band members' own proclivities, and how much is coming from Steve's head? Was Steve directing moments of arco bass and accordion on Maroon, for example, or did those come naturally from the band's existing talents?
Furthermore, A New Shore is the first track on Page One. You hear this before anything else, and you may wonder: is this just the way Steve writes? Is he unable to write music that doesn't sound like BNL?
It is time to examine two nigh-on-perfect examples of Barenaked Ladies' instrumental, songwriting, and arrangement abilities, both with and without Steve. The first is Home, from Barenaked Ladies Are Me, the last album with Steve.
Home is a beautiful song. It starts with Ed fingerpicking an ostinato - Ed rarely fingerpicks, but it still sounds like an Ed part. Jim accompanies on bass guitar, sounds like a Hofner. Tyler joins on drums but keeps it simple. (This is a diversion, but I think Ty has either trained himself or been trained to being a perfect pop drummer: dynamic, but invisible if you're not looking for him. Sometimes you hear a part he's playing and you're like "this is too simple. Tyler has real chops and he doesn't use them." He really holds back. When Kevin directed him to play a drum solo on later track Passcode, he... I mean... I could play that solo. It's like he's focused his showoffiness into his jokey larger-than-life personality and put all the discipline in his drumming. I'm not mad about it. I love him. Tyler, I love you. I need you to know that.)
Kevin is the multi-instrumentalist. And, boy, does he multi-instrument on this one. He adds ambience on a slide guitar. There is a playful mandolin in the background that adds SO MUCH charm to the song. This is Kevin at his best. He plays an unbelievably beautiful, fluid, and simple electric guitar solo, like all his finest moments on 1999's Stunt. And in the bridge, he plays keyboard.
We have to talk about the bridge, because it is a Barenaked Ladies trademark. No, wait! It's a Steven Page trademark. They haven't done this since he left. The bridge is a total changing of gears. We change keys, mode, instrumentation. A choir comes in. The song gets dramatic, theatrical, a little more orchestral for a bit. Jim bows a couple layers of upright bass, perhaps in addition to the electric bass.
The Robbie Fulks song Fountains Of Wayne Hotline is a masterpiece of pop analysis in which he points out several arrangement tools Fountains Of Wayne used to bring their songs to life. The first is the radical dynamic shift, going from solo vocal and guitar to, "you know, full band entry, fortissimo, while maintaining consistent apparent volume on the vocal track." This is Barenaked Ladies' version of that, and it's unique to Steven Page bridges. They do it in Running Out Of Ink from the same recording sessions. They did it on Next Time on their previous album. They did it on The Humour Of The Situation, and Alcohol, and Intermittently - and that last one is impressive because the main deal of that song is vascillating between high energy and low energy, but they still crammed a brand new timpani in that bridge. Box Set from their very first album has one. Kevin even wrote one for Steven to sing on Eraser from their 2009 kids' album. If the bridge feels like a big deal, like a departure from the rest of the song, but sets you up to re-enter the chorus with a burst of newfound energy, that's a BNL bridge.
That's something Steven took with him when he left. It revolves on the dynamic and emotional range of his ridiculously powerful voice, no one else in the band has that kind of vocal flexibility. He said "it's been" in a meme once but the dude had PIPES.
This is what I'm getting at: Home is a perfect Barenaked Ladies song because it features all of the members of Barenaked Ladies contributing in recognizable and important ways. You can hear each member's contributions, and you know it wouldn't be the same if it was played by someone else.
This is where the 2010 song Ordinary comes in. Ordinary does the same thing that Home did, except without Page. It still demonstrates the full abilities of the band - even fuller than before, without a big ostentatious frontman with a gigantic towering voice in the way!
This one starts with Ed playing an ostinato too, but flatpicking this time. (Jimmy always said he was a good flatpicker.) This is a trademark of his. If there's a better rhythm guitarist in pop music, I haven't heard them. (This is one of the things that keeps me checking in with BNL - they're all GOOD pop musicians. It's unfair that they're primarily making radio rock for nerdy moms and Canadian dads now.)
Ordinary finds Ed more in his country element than he was likely allowed previously. There have been bluegrass tinged Ed songs in the past, or bluegrass arrangements of other BNL songs. Steve never did anything but stand and clap and sing back up. This is the kind of song the band has already demonstrated they can play without him.
But it's not strictly country, though there's mandolin and upright bass and, to borrow a John Flansburgh expression, "cross-eyed harmonizing." Ty plays the song on an electronic pad, switching to a full acoustic kit only for the choruses. It's reminiscent of his contribution to Off The Hook. And of course any time he hits that damn jam block I think of One Week. Kevin plays some piano bombs and there are a couple moments of electronically-modulated Rhodes. It gets a little weird, at least for country music.
What makes Ordinary a perfect example of Barenaked Ladies' arranging capability extends beyond the players' mastery of their instruments, or even the variety of instrumentation they bring, though. It lies in the vocal harmonies. And this hurts even more than "when you're older, look you in the eye." Singing is Steven's WHEELHOUSE, it is what he was put on this sinful earth for. And in this song, his four former bandmates demonstrate that they can EXCEL in this department without him.
We're getting granular here for a moment. Sorry. The way the verses go, Ed gets joined by a different combination of harmonies every line. For example:
It was arranged for their voices. No, it was written for their voices, knowing how to make each singer sound best, based on the timbre and registers of their voices. Kevin has a warbly choir-boy tenor, Jim has a thin quiet-hippie-jazz voice that is the optimal tone for pop background vocals. (Him and Andy together, hoo boy. Those brothers were unstoppable, but that's for another time.)
On Some Fantastic off of 1998's Stunt, Steve and Ed sung lead at different times, occasionally harmonizing or backing each other up, but Jim and Kevin got in there too. That was a band effort. It's a wonderful song, and frankly I cannot believe Ed plays that one without Steve in the band anymore.
But on Ordinary, they let the drummer sing. The drummer! Tyler Stewart!! He's not a bad singer, but Tyler gets to sing like 5 words every one-and-a-half albums in this band. "Why say anything nice," "all the dirt off of me," "guess I shouldn't tell them that I like Duran Duran." They write a part for Ty to sing that works for his voice - he and Jim go back and forth with a repeated "ah" in the C section while Ed sings lead and Kev harmonizes. Ty even gets in on that cross-eyed harmonizing in the chorus.
Now, since Steve left, everyone has been doing a lot more singing. Ty got some background vocals on All In Good Time, but not many. He took over a lot of Steve's backing vocals live, including the "it's been" part. Tyler has a big pushy voice like Steve does, but he is a drummer. He's got bigger fish to fry, and he is decidedly not a lead singer.
And of course Ed went from singing 30% of the show to singing 70% of it. It appears to have taken its toll on his voice. But he still goes up there and belts it out every time, and sometimes it's good enough. I feel SO mean writing this about a man who will never read this. Ed is a super talented songwriter and guitarist. He doesn't have to be a tremendous lead singer.
But this album came out before any of this happened - the album was still done in collaboration with their longtime producer Michael Philip Wojewoda, it still sounds like a Barenaked Ladies album, for the most part. There are some safe alt-radio moments (You Run Away is the obvious one), but there are also truly exciting Barenaked Ladies-sounding songs on this record, like Ordinary or The Love We're In (which feels like Same Thing from 1995's Born On A Pirate Ship.) There are some 2006-style power pop tracks. I personally love everything Jim Creeggan has ever done, he got to write two beautiful songs. And Kevin does a weird Kevin song and a sorta sappy but pleasant pop song and a dreamy Kevin song - he is truly the Andrew Horowitz of this band.
All In Good Time was a good first record without their former lead singer. And Ordinary showed what the band was capable of in his absence. Steven Page's A New Shore, by comparison, feels like pastiche. There are some other songs on Page One that I could be convinced were Barenaked Ladies tracks, like Indecision, but A New Shore feels like he is saying "look. I could do it like this if I wanted to, but we all know it's not going to be the same."
Where are we now? Steve struck up a successful partnership with old friend Craig Northey of the Odds and they've been writing and performing together ever since. Steve plays a lot of instruments himself on his recordings, doing some computery tracks too. He still has that voice. He tours smaller venues (in the states, at least) and is living with his new wife, working on theater and stuff. Steven has released another album since Page One but I, um, well, I suppose I haven't worked up the interest to listen to it. I'm sure it's fine.
Barenaked Ladies is still a touring band, but they do this hokey 90s throwback concert series to book venues like Madison Square Garden. They have released 3 albums since All In Good Time, all with a producer named Gavin who I do not like. I do not like these albums. There is far too much Ed on them. It sounds like he's posturing. The albums feel like anyone else's too-late-in-their-career albums. Sometimes there's a song or two I can hang with (I cannot explain why I like the dreadful song Duct Tape Heart, which I swear is a marketing gimmick to try to get them on a commercial on the Discovery channel, but something about Kevin's guitar in the chorus just WORKS for me.) Usually I just come for the Jim tracks, but those are becoming so scarce, and I wasn't the hugest fan of what Gavin (and, later, even the Persuasions!) did to Narrow Streets.
I'm sure their new singles get airplay in Canada. I'm sure they're doing fine. But it seems like they've finally made it to the Smash Mouth playing county fairs portion of their career, and that makes me sad, because they're a bunch of talented guys. I'm sure Steve is fine. Everyone is fine. Nothing matters.
Except maybe what matters is that I got entranced by a bunch of shakily-inferred drama in the music of some musicians I loved. This is what I love about this band - it's four to six affable, talented Canadians with well documented personalities and musical abilities, who are good at working with each other. That's part of the metaculture of getting into a band whose lineup stays the same - for example, nobody can even talk about Fleetwood Mac without discussing their various relationships and breakups between band members and how it influenced their music. Listening to a capital-B band means a tiny portion of my mind is analyzing the relationships on display, how they work, and what I can learn from that to bring to my own relationships, musical or otherwise. Of course I want to be in a band like Barenaked Ladies one day, those guys were tight as hell, even at their corniest. But I don't want to leave a band like Barenaked Ladies and have a pot-shot at me in my lowest time playing on Canadian Adult Contemporary radio. You Run Away was nothing but some venom and bile that set us up for their real demonstration of ability (and spite), Ordinary. THAT's how you allow yourself to grow out of change. And A New Shore is a Steven saying "this is everything I am leaving behind, there will not be any more of this. Any questions?"