In a world where scientists are saying our planet may not have much more than 20 years left of livable climate, where our nation is harshly divided and people are predicting another civil war, where corporations have more power than people, ska veterans Reel Big Fish are presenting us with the only solution that seems to make sense.
Let’s just dance.
On their latest album, appropriately titled Life Sucks…Let’s Dance!, the group has filled the album to the brim with songs that will get you moving, that will make you feel good, and even make you think a bit. The group, normally known for their exuberant cynicism, have pumped up the positivity here to help coat over some of our many fears and worries related to our troubled times.
While there’s not much subtlety to the title track, there really doesn’t need to be. The bouncy, buoyant cut is pure fun. As frontman Aaron Barrett sings “Maybe if we have some fun we won’t feel so bad”, you’ll be dancing so much you’ll believe him. Equally danceable is the lead single “You Can’t Have All of Me”, which has no problem getting stuck in your head (I found myself singing out the chorus at random times throughout the day). In true RBF spirit, the track never feels weighty or too serious, but actually touches upon something a bit profound – the need to stay strong and protect yourself when the world is trying to take too much. It’s an anthem of self-empowerment that doesn’t drown in platitudes or cheesy drivel.
Something most early reviews have touched upon is the surprisingly positive outlook of the album, attributed mostly to Barrett’s recent marriage, which is the focus of “In Love Again”. While clearly tackled with the band’s usual brand of dark humor, there’s something truly honest in the mix of joy and anxiety of the lyrics here, and once again broaches a thoughtful question; how can you learn to overcome a life of bleak, cynical outlooks and learn to actually accept happiness? If anyone ever tries to say there isn’t any depth to ska songs, it just shows they aren’t listening hard enough.
The positivity continues on the mature “I Should Know By Now”, and the feel-good “G.D. Beautiful Day”. The latter song’s lyrics hint that Randy Newman and Loudon Wainwright III may be some of Barrett’s unspoken inspirations, as he blends happiness with a snarky, dark twist in similar ways to those renowned songwriters.
Musically, the group also has shown growth, incorporating tin pan alley piano on “G.D. Beautiful Day” and the sweet, grooving “I’d Rather Get it Wrong”, the tropical, calypso instrumental “Walter’s Highlife”, and the jazzy coda on “The Good Old Days” is a testament to the band’s actual musicianship that doesn’t get enough recognition.
There are certainly some throw-back songs here, like the pop-punk banger “Tongue Tied and Tipsy Too” and “Bleached Thang, Baby”, but these tracks don’t leave as much of an impression. “Pissed Off” is also familiar, but an easy singalong (though could have been 15-20 seconds shorter). The group is clearly more engaging on tracks where they’re stretching themselves into new territories, such as “Bob Marley’s Toe”, a mellow ode to the king of reggae that also touches on some light social commentary. It’ll make you think about how one man’s toe really can change the world.
While there are plenty of areas of depth and uplift on Life Sucks… the album is truly about having a great time and putting aside your worries for 44 minutes. I mean, there’s “Another Beer Song”, and while it’s a frenetic, super-catchy collection of “whoas” and sing-along lyrics, it’s a sign that the band hasn’t changed THAT much. If you enjoyed RBF in the 90’s, you’ll certainly still love them now.