By Sasha Ray
It is always heartening for an album to live up to its much-anticipated buildup. It is even more reassuring that, after nearly four decades, the Goo Goo Dolls are breaking new ground.
After two years in isolation, many agonizing months of waiting, and numerous false alarms about its release, Chaos in Bloom, the Goo Goo Dolls’ 14th album has finally made its debut.
While upholding their usual habits — ambiguous lyrics, tracks that contrast fast, slow, soft, and loud songs, and bassist Robby Takac featured as a vocalist on two of them — the Goo Goo Dolls have a few surprises up their sleeve(s), and that made their newest music, well, rock (in every sense).
Some faithful followers were not surprised. In their prerelease teasers, the band made it clear that their upcoming album would feature a more unfiltered, natural sound. This would be the first album in 20 years that the band had produced themselves, and it would be far less beholden to the slick influence of today’s electronic production tactics. It would capture how the troupe sounded in its early days.
Thankfully, the Goo Goo Dolls were as good as their word. The band has reconnected with its garage band origins, which put them on the map (or rather, on the radio) in 1995 [with A Boy Named Goo’s “Name”]. The power of rock, which drove the band’s mid-’90s takeoff, has returned.
It was about time for the band to revisit its roots. The Goo Goo Dolls, best known for their 1998 smash hit “Iris,” have strayed from their early sound in their last three releases, spanning 2013-19. For a while, it seemed as if the alternative rock band was venturing into “pop rock,” or even worse, the dreaded genre of “pop.”
Technological advancements in the music industry may well have been, and likely were, a major factor in the band’s deviation; emphasis was placed on editing music rather than creating it. This dilution of the band’s strengths may have been exacerbated by the decisions of outside producers. But, hey, at least their lyrics always rhymed.
Understandably, Goo Goo Dolls listeners have been pining for the band to return to its early sound, much of it reflecting life’s ongoing struggles and challenges. This approach was last, and possibly best, exemplified on 2003’s Gutterflower, which featured the songs “It’s Over,” “Here Is Gone,” and “Sympathy.” These songs touched on loss and failure. With Chaos in Bloom, the band has regained its footing musically and thematically. But there is transformation as well — some of the songs here also suggest a hope for brighter times. Granted, that optimism springs from less than cheery circumstances: the trials and tribulations of the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and March 2020’s lockdown.
In their lyrics, the Goo Goo Dolls’ typical themes are present: questions about life and seeking connection. It’s a diverse collection of sound ranging from the harmonizing “Save Me From Myself” — an energetic, inspirational anthem, in which the two vocalists sound like they’re close to losing their breath — to “Past Mistakes,” a bass-heavy, nagging jump start.
Musically, it’s a tasteful balance between old and new. They’ve invited female vocalists to be backup singers on select tracks (just like they did for the first time in 2016’s release Boxes) and utilized orchestral instruments on others, a unique tactic setting them apart as a rock group since 1998 (with “Iris”).
But here’s a little twist: some of the music has been composed to noticeably serve the lyrics. Several of the songs are structured to gain momentum and go out with a tasteful bang.
“Let the Sun,” for instance, opens with a simple acoustic guitar chord. Following a quiet plea for mercy addressing a “cruel man,” the lyrics, vocals, and musical accompaniment grow in power. What begins in a modest, begging tone evolves into a bellow, accented by an echoing refrain to “let the sun come back again,” backed by steady beats of percussion.
“Going Crazy” begins and ends with lead guitarist and vocalist John Rzeznik’s historical trademark riff, last exemplified on 1993’s Superstar Car Wash. This tune unleashes insanity within: the guitar strings are subject to inner rage. Lyrical affirmation (“Yeah, I’m goin’ crazy”) is repeated throughout the chorus. An abrupt cutoff mimics the sound of a wall being hit.
“Day After Day,” one of the most distinctive tracks on the album, kicks off by contrasting a continuous high-pitched hum with a tinny quick-stepping cymbal stroke. This is interrupted by low, long, and haunting piano notes, evocative of a somber darkness. Rugged, hushed vocals — a whisper? a voice in one’s head? — articulate invasive thoughts: “What if it all ends today? Who to call and what to say? Would it matter anyway?” The faint echo of its final notes emphasizes a deafening silence; a ringing in one’s ears amplified in isolation.
The lyrics of “Day After Day,” “War,” and “Going Crazy” resonate with the aggravations and anguishes of lockdown. “Going Crazy,” the only song on the album that contains an expletive, effectively evokes the period’s mass hysteria. (We can let the coarse language slide, though. The sentiment, “it’s a fucked-up world,” is only too well understood after what we’ve lived through.) The last two years, dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, have been tormenting. The Goo Goo Dolls, like many other artists, have been forced to find inspiration in our collective stir-craziness. (It was reportedly the lockdown that invited the band to go back to its raw origins.)
It is always heartening for an album to live up to its much-anticipated buildup. It is even more reassuring that, after nearly four decades, the Goo Goo Dolls are breaking new ground. Those who already love the venerable band will find even more to treasure in Chaos in Bloom.
Sasha Ray is a Boston native who is currently studying for her Master’s at Boston University’s College of Communication. She writes mostly about the arts.