It is only once in a great while that an album comes along that eclipses all expectations. With the exception of reliable rock pioneers like R.E.M. and Radiohead, most highly anticipated releases are about as consistently firm as Britney Spears’ … songs. Recent efforts from Kid Rock and Michael Jackson floundered, while the likes of U2 and Chris Isaak proved unexpectedly germane, surpassing critical and commercial expectations with beautifully crafted pop masterpieces. With the release of the long-awaited Gutterflower, the Goo Goo Dolls fall somewhere in between this shuffle in the battle against ephemeral success.
Having been around for 15 years, there is no denying that they haven’t earned their success. But after shaping and changing their sound with their 1995 breakthrough A Boy Named Goo and the multi-platinum follow-up Dizzy Up The Girl, Gutterflower seems like a small step backward. Full of jangly, down-tuned guitars and symbol-heavy drums, the album follows in the vein of its predecessor, blasting three-minute anthemic power pop ditties at full throttle.
However, here they drop the strings and acoustic guitars and rip through chords with overstated yearning, allowing frontman Johnny Rzeznik to play off of his self-imposed vulnerability with his breathy and soothing vocals. Despite somehow finding a way to utter ‘yeah’ in the chorus of every song, Rzeznik does manage to pull off reflective lines like “I’m torn in pieces/I’m blind and waiting for you,” and “I thought I lost you somewhere/But you were never really ever there at all.” These are the types of brutally honest emotional outpourings that helped make “Iris” and “Slide” such huge hits.
But those expecting a retread of such hits will be surprised to find the album void of such over-sappy tracks and more similar to their raucous arena rocker “Long Way Down.” There are essentially three different kinds of songs here: The uplifting mid-tempo ballads, like the contrived yet rousing leadoff single “Here Is Gone;” moody rockers like the standout “Big Machine;” and the interchangeable rackets sung by raspy-voiced bassist (and also the original singer of the band) Robby Takac. The one exception, and the strongest hope for another smash single, is the stripped-down gem “Sympathy.” The combination of the mandolin intro and Rzeznik’s cautiously fearful lyrics prove that these Dolls are masters of creating simple pop confections.
Beyond that though, there isn’t much variation in the structured formula that has gotten them to where they are today.
Behind the board for the third consecutive time is producer Rob Cavallo, who seems to be achieving a sound that prohibits the band from breaking free of the mold as not to alienate their longtime punk-rock following while simultaneously trying to flatter the 13-year-old girls that propelled them to rock-star status. Seemingly, there is something for everyone. As it comes off though, save for hardcore fans, there isn’t all that much here for anyone.