Dark Horse

1.5 out of 5 stars

Nickelback has become something of a dirty word among music snobs. The Canadian power-grunge hit-makers have been repeatedly lambasted for recycling chord structures and lyrical themes. Though the band has found great success on the Billboard charts, they’re treated as something of a joke by more elitist music enthusiasts and journalists. Does Nickelback truly deserve the reputation it has earned? After the release of Dark Horse, it’s hard to say no.

Musically, this album isn’t any worse than the band’s previous efforts. The main difference is in the production: The band’s use of busy, dance-floor-ready hi-hats lends several tracks a bubblegum-pop flavor. It’s a sign of neurosis — the whole affair reeks of desperation. Lead singer Chad Kroeger might not be old enough to have a mid-life crisis, but now would be the perfect time for a mid-career crisis. Where the band once would have placed an earnest blue-collar narrative, they grope for “balls out” (in their words) party anthems and sex boasts. Kroeger’s project on Dark Horse is to convince his audience he’s a stone-cold badass whose favorite hobbies include drinking and fucking.

What else could explain a song title like “S.E.X.”? While the sub-Metallica riffs are harmless enough, the lyrics are far from sexy. Lines like “Sex is never a question / It’s always the answer” and “No is just a thought / That never crosses my mind” are tinged with a kind of creepy, date-rapist misogyny. Opener “Something in Your Mouth” is just as trashy; Kroeger serenades a woman by telling her she “looks so much cuter / with something in (her) mouth.” Not even the southern-fried, Pantera-influenced guitar work can save the track. And if that isn’t enough, the ditty “Next Go Round” is devoted entirely to explaining exactly how long he can last in bed.

The caveman-like swagger of those songs is countered by a series of cuts that reveal Nickelback’s softer (and boring) side. “Gotta be Somebody” is a predictable, country-flavored ballad about finding “the one” with an admittedly appealing chorus. It’s thoroughly average, but stellar in comparison to the limp “I’d Come for You.” “Never Gonna be Alone” fares better, but its striking similarity to U2’s “With or Without You” is distracting. One piece that shines through the sap is the sunny album closer “This Afternoon.” Bouncing with a restrained glee, the amiable power-popper finds Kroeger reminiscing over simpler, poorer times hanging out with his hometown friends. Its warmth and authenticity show that Nickelback can find its voice after all — by letting its guard down.

One decent track can’t save the whole album, but “This Afternoon” is a potential roadmap to a superior future LP, one that embraces the band’s country roots and down-home charm. Until then, disingenuous love songs appear to be the order of the day and Dark Horse just feels like another nail in the Nickelback coffin.

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