Review Summary: Rzeznik might still struggle to keep his art meaningful, but is he just killing time?
Of all the types of compilation - box sets, best ofs, rarity and b-side collections- Greatest Hits are the easiest. They practically pick themselves. There’s no wasting time with ugly things like ego, art and opinions; it’s just pure commerce. Beautiful, middle-of-the-road capitalism: the perfect summary of Brooklyn-born punk rockers-turned-AM radio staples the Goo Goo Dolls since releasing that triumvirate of unforgettable platinum singles between 1995 and 1997: ‘Name,’ ‘Slide’ and ‘Iris,’ the latter hinging upon the beautiful, not to mention shamelessly ironic (in hindsight), hook ”I don’t want the world to see me / ‘Cause I don’t think that they’d understand / When everything’s made to be broken / I just want you to know who I am.”
The Goo Goo Dolls previously went the “Best Of” route with 2001’s aptly-named What I Learned About Ego, Art, Opinion and Commerce
, controversially shunning all of the singles bar one from their breakthrough records A Boy Named Goo
and Dizzy Up The Girl
, including the aforementioned three. The more banally-titled Greatest Hits Volume One: The Singles
flips the lid on the its predecessor, pulling together the group’s fourteen most successful radio singles, over half of which have been released since Ego
. It all begs the question: does the world really need another Goo Goo Dolls collection? Well, at least in the sense that the world really needs anything, it has a better case than most: the dollar is in freefall, the price of oil shows no signs of slowing its ascent, and apparently there’s a war going on; it seems there’s never been a greater need for vague, ambiguous sentiments set against the lulling security of Johnny Rzeznik’s smoky baritone and strings right on cue. Mandolins are optional, as always. I say the more the merrier.
In truth, at least ten of these fourteen tracks will be instantly recognisable to most Americans, and at least five to the rest of the English-speaking world. However, recognisable and memorable are two completely different things and, given the formulaic nature of the songs, it’s never quite clear which songs are the genuine article and which are impostors, riding on the coattails of similar, better songs. Greatest Hits
throws this glaring deficiency into stark contrast. The six best tracks on the album are, without a doubt, the run of six singles from ‘Name’ through ‘Broadway,’ five of which appeared on 1998’s Dizzy Up The Girl
- though the group’s love/hate relationship with ‘Iris’ continues, their signature track consigned to last place in the running order. Back then, it seemed as if Rzeznik could do no wrong. If his melodies, even at their most bombastic, lacked definition, it was the sort of naïve sincerity- the same horse Bruce Springsteen’s been riding for about thirty years- shared with and probably inherited from the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg. He seemed to possess that ability to say a lot and nothing all at once, that inimitable quality of the great communicators, and Dizzy Up The Girl
had this rare quality in abundance, both in Rzeznik and in bassist Robby Takac, who’s criminally been denied a single from every album, despite being arguably the more consistent writer.
Breakout single “Name” hangs on John’s tender promise that “if you could hide beside me, maybe for a while / I won’t tell no one your name.”
‘Slide’ is a silly love song, the type Paul McCartney told you about, or a debate over whether to abort or get married, depending on which verses you choose to stress; either way, the power of the line “what you feel is what you are and what you are is beautiful”
is in no way diminished by the fact it barely even makes sense- like its subject, the sentiment is beautiful. ‘Broadway’ is the hidden gem within the Goo Goo Dolls’ repertoire, notwithstanding its brief stint on the charts. Just as ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ captured Dylan at his vicious, self-righteous best, Rzeznik has never been so vitriolic as he hits back at critics in the New York neighbourhood he grew up in. As parting blows go, it’s difficult to imagine one more damaging than “you talk about the world like it’s some place that you’ve been.”
It’s the kind of line that makes you want enemies so you’ve got somebody to use it on, a home-wrecker. ‘Black Balloon’ is the most pointed of all the lyrics, and probably needs to be, addressing a far-gone heroin addict with the lines, “I saw the world spin beneath you, and scatter like earth from the spoon that was your womb.”
Dizzy Up The Girl
was by all accounts a one-off pop album, an unusually balanced set of singles and should-be singles. Ever since, the Rzeznik and Co. have tried to redefine themselves in that context, determined to change just enough without losing what made Dizzy Up
so special in the first place. As a result, they’ve wound up with a stack of compromise singles, some of which display the ingenuity of character of old: ‘Sympathy,’ for instance, finds the perfect middle ground between the essential cheerfulness of ‘Slide’ and the essential mandolin-ness of ‘Iris.’ Others display all the trappings of a songwriter who’s essentially resigned to being a cartoon of himself. ‘Stay with You’ is loud and pulsating, but could hardly be described as a “rocker,” while ‘Better Day’ and ‘Feel the Silence’ have all the pieces in the right places, but the ironic detachment in Rzeznik’s voice is, unfortunately, too convincing. For despite the billing, Greatest Hits Volume One
is really only about one Goo Goo Doll and his own personal tribulations, a truth summed up by the refrain from Transformers
-affiliated dud ‘Before It’s Too Late’: “Don’t fall, just be who you are / It’s all that we need in our lives.”
Rzeznik might still struggle to keep his art meaningful; but is he just killing time when the point has long passed at which people will accept any old shit
he signs his name to?