Album of the Week: Stunt, Barenaked Ladies

Give credit where credit is due: “One Week” is probably one of the Barenaked Ladies’ greatest songs. For a lot of people, it’s the only song by the band that they know (excepting maybe “If I Had $1000000,” which I first heard on an old New York State Lottery ad). But if you stop listening to 1998’s Stunt after Steven Page cryptically intones “Birchmont Stadium, Home of the Robbie,” you’re doing yourself a disservice, because this album is the Ladies’ best.

I think this band gets unfairly written off as a one-hit wonder at best, and a novelty act at worst, because their songs often contain humor. But as anyone who listens to Flight of the Conchords knows, writing funny lyrics is far from easy, and belies a really solid grasp of rhyme, timing, and vocabulary. Lines like “Forget the café latte/screw the raspberry iced tea/a Malibu and Coke for you/a G&T for me” (from track six, “Alcohol”) aren’t necessarily inevitable, and the band should be praised for lyrics like that instead of written off. You can write funny songs without being a comedy act.

And it’s the wink and grin of songs like “Alcohol” or “Some Fantastic” which makes the rest of the album emotionally bearable. It’s pretty dark and unexpectedly creepy in places. “I’ll Be That Girl,” is told from the point of a depressive jilted lover who contemplates killing himself—the closing lines of the chorus “If I were the sun, you would be in shadow/If I had a gun, there’d be no tomorrow,” are frank and unsettling, especially when contrasted with the sparkly guitars that are way up in the mix.

“In the Car,” about a stunted relationship that is never really consummated, is more melancholy than outright dark. The narrator doesn’t seem too upset that the relationship is ending, but does have a sense of how strange it is to be with someone and then release them out of your life. The guitar intro and outro here are really top-notch, and quickly establish the song’s tone.

“Never is Enough” follows this one, and is pretty straightforward pop song about realizing that the only person you really need to do things for is yourself. There’s no need to keep up with the Joneses. There’s even some fun little turntable elements sprinkled throughout, which pair very interestingly with the layered acoustic and electric guitars.

Harmonically, none of the songs on the album are terribly complicated, but the group, especially guitarist Ed Roberston, has a talent for arranging these simple structures in engaging ways that make them sound more complex than they are. Take the simplicity of “Light Up My Room,” with a fingerpicked ostinato guitar part that propels the song throughout its 3:36 length.

More so than the Ladies’ other albums, the listener feels the raw nerves of sentiment here—particularly on the sublime “Call and Answer,” where Page exhausts himself with the strength of his feeling. It’s this emotional give-and-take that makes Stunt effective as an album: the band allows the listener to explore a world that is as manic-depressive as it is catchy.