So, without further ado, I give you my first installment in "Time-Defining Music: The College Years." (Warning: since I'm writing about music that moved me deeply at one time or still does, there's a good chance these installments will be a bit lengthy.)
I became an instant fan of Barenaked Ladies when I saw them perform on Vh1's Hard Rock Live in the summer of '97, but it wasn't until that fall in Searcy that I bought my first BNL album, Born on a Pirate Ship. (At this point the band was gaining some notoriety with their live album, Rock Spectacle, and they got Top 40 airplay with "Old Apartment" and a reissue of "Brian Wilson." It would be another year before they became "The 'One Week' band.") BOAPS isn't the band's most consistent album. In fact, among the fourteen tracks, there are several missteps, including three songs that I can't even muster sufficiently derisive comments about--"Call Me Calmly," "Spider in My Room," and "In the Drink." However, the brilliant songs on the album (and there are plenty) easily offset the aforementioned throwaways.
Although BNL have always injected their albums with some humor (something that critics jump on, often dismissing them as a "comedic" band), the bulk of their musical catalogue evokes a lot more from the listener than just a laugh, and on no album is that clearer than on BOAPS. The exploration of the effects of guilt and time holds the album together thematically. The first time I listened to the album I sat alone in my dorm room, reading the lyrics as I listened, and it blew me away.
The album would be worth owning just for songs like "Break Your Heart," "Straw Hat and Dirty Hank," and "Shoebox" but five songs in particular made me into a BNL fanatic, extoling the band's brilliance to all my friends. In "This Is Where It Ends," Page (Steven Page, the singer with glasses) expresses the frustration of combating depression (worsened by alcohol and med abuse) and the inter- and intra- struggles it causes: "Make excuses for behavior/Can my illness be my savior?/I hid my heart while you still gave yours." "When I Fall," told from the perspective of a lonely window washer, perfectly captures isolation and a yearning for human connection: "I wish I could step from this scaffold/onto soft green pastures, shopping malls, or bed/with my family/and my pasteur and my grandfather who's dead."
The back-to-back songs of "I Live..." and "Old Apartment" best demonstrate the album's dominate theme. "I Live With..." opens with the speaker describing a childhood accident in which he shot a friend at point blank range in the face with a BB gun. Given the description in the following verses of the speaker's emotional tailspin, I think it's safe to assume he killed his friend or at least hurt him. The bridge, one of BNL's best lyrical and musical moments, expounds on the broader effects of regret:
The love you put away
like games that children play
The hearts you choose to break
like cars dumped in the lake
The laugh lines on your face
The life I won't erase
The cold house I won't leave
The guests I won't receive
To this day "Old Apartment" is still probably my favorite BNL song and for good reason--it rocks, the melody is catchy, and the lyrics are fantastic. The speaker breaks into his old apartment in a fit of nostalgia and laments the way in which the physical changes and time affect his memories of his life there. The song is chocked full of good lines, but my favorites come at the end: "Only memories, fading memories/blending into dull tableaux/I want them back."
The fifth song I alluded to earlier is "Same Thing." I've expounded on enough songs already, but I will say that the song is achingly beautiful and on some days is my favorite BNL song--see my Top 5 Songs blog.
I can honestly say that if I hadn't bought this album, my college experience would've been different in many ways. Without it, Chris Mirante and I wouldn't have named our band Shoebox and learned nearly every song in the BNL catalogue, nor would we have taken our own music in the direction we did. Each time I listened to the album, I developed a greater appreciation for the artistry and craft that went into making it; the five songs I detailed (and others) demonstrate the capacity of pop songs to be more than ear candy and the power of music to impact your life, revealing something of the human experience.