Album Review: Barenaked Ladies – Detour De Force

Almost thirty years into their career, most people have long-since decided what they think of Canada’s Barenaked Ladies. Those who loved their late 90s/early 2000s quirky hits (“One Week”, “Pinch Me”) likely look back fondly on the group through nostalgic glasses, while some dismissed them as writers of novelty songs lacking in real depth (and they certainly have a couple of those songs; “Another Postcard”). But over the last two decades of their career, the band has slowly grown a catalogue of mature, sincere pop-rock that should be envied by any songwriter. On their latest release, Detour de Force, BNL have continued adding to this collection, with a couple songs that could rank among their best. While not a home run start to finish, there’s enough great material here to please any fan that has stood by the band over the last three decades.

The song that truly makes this record is “New Disaster” (see our previous coverage of the track’s music video here), a smart and anthemic stadium rocker that is both one of the catchiest songs the group has written, but also one of the best examples of frontman Ed Robertson’s lyrical growth. One of the darkest songs in the group’s oeuvre, lines like “There’s no rescue. No way off this ride. If all this world’s a stage, we’re burning down the theater with everyone inside” are delivered with a sense of urgency I’ve never heard from the group before. The song grows in power, leading up to a bridge where Robertson shouts “Don’t believe the hype. This is no way to live your life!” that will send shivers through you.

Even on their more playful songs, Barenaked Ladies have always found ways to sneak in bits of pathos and heart into their writing. On first single “Flip”, a fun and more light-hearted pop song, Robertson tackles the idea of trying to see the world in different ways, while also looking inwardly at his own biases (“Am I living in a bubble? Am I really out of touch?”). This meaning may be lost on first listen, as fans will be too busy singing along to the upbeat melody.

Even with tracks like “New Disaster”, there is a streak of optimism and positivity throughout Detour. “Good Life” opens with a soulful sample, and then utilizes the piano and drums to build up to a big, harmonious chorus. The song finds the group looking back and appreciating their career (“It’s a good life. Wasn’t easy but it turned out all right”), and while the hip-hop breakdown at the bridge probably could have been left out, it doesn’t ruin the celebratory vibe of the song. Similar is “Live Well”, a gentler acoustic track that’s echoing guitars add a melancholy lilt, even as it finds the bright side of hardship (“I’m alive. Doesn’t mean I lived well. Just means I got back up every time that I fell”).

There’s a more mellower songs here than one might expect from the band. “Here Together”, with its keyboard melodies countering the guitar again invokes an appreciation for the life we have, and the thoughtful “Man Made Lake” finds Robertson “Taking on water in a man-made lake”. The saddest song on the record, “God Forbid” is a meditative look at confronting the fears that control us (“God forbid, you and I, ever find better words to describe how we can’t run and hide from the fear in the backs of our minds”).

For BNL’s more traditional fans, there are still tracks here that have the band’s familiar tongue-in-cheek humor. “Flat Earth” brings in quirky synths and organ to its chamber pop production that finds its protagonist getting caught in the sights of a woman with ridiculous views (“If I’m going to believe in her, I might as well believe in flat earth”). “By Law”, though delivered as a folk song, finds its narrator recalling relatable anecdotes of annoying circumstances resulting from specific bylaws. And then there is the straight-forward party song “Roll Out”, with enough funky guitars and polish to make it an easy future single.

Hearing how far BNL have come as songwriters, it makes some of the tracks that regress towards sillier topics or musical whimsies a bit of a disappointment. This includes the smooth jazz lark “Paul Chambers”, even though that one starts to redeem itself as the arrangement changes in the second half. Then there’s the loud, obnoxious “Internal Dynamo” that closes out the record, moving from atmospheric hip-hop beats with trumpets and trippy guitars, before veering into space rock, then hard rap rock, while ending in a proggy jam. It feels like the band trying to cram in all their other influences into one song, and it doesn’t work.

Thankfully, most of the record does. From the band’s excellent harmonies, ebullient arrangements and sharp songwriting, Barenaked Ladies prove why they’ve been able to weather the many storms of a band’s career and are still going strong thirty years down the line. The album comes out on July 16th, and the group will be touring next year with Toad the Wet Sprocket and the Gin Blossoms so catch them then!

Hear the first two singles below:

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