I’ve been in album mode lately–which means my Top Ten iTunes of the Month will be even more bland and predictable than the blandest and most predictable iTunes Top 5s. Currently playing: Clumsy by Our Lady Peace, which defined my year 1997 the same way Jagged Little Pill defined 1995. Eight years later, absolutely none of its power has been dilluted: this remains one of the absolutely classic Canadian rock albums.
Yet listening to it also makes me sad, because it serves as a reminder of just how far Our Lady Peace has fallen since then. Their follow-up to Clumsy, the incredibly-awkwardly-titled Happiness…Is Not a Fish That You Can Catch, was by no means a disappointment, yet it was also woefully inconsistent and features four of the most anonymous songs in the entire Our Lady Peace catalogue (seriously, can anybody apart from me and Jeff Whatley actually remember “Happiness and the Fish”, “Lying Awake”, “Annie” and “Consequences of Laughing”?). Then, in 2000, the band released Spiritual Machines, a concept album based on a book by avant garde writer Ray Kurtzweil. In retrospect, this was the beginning of the end for Our Lady Peace: anybody that heard “Life” at the band’s Summersault festival must have sensed the band was aching for more widespread commercial success. When the video came out, it was inexplicably filled with flying Chinese letters; clearly, our man Raine was beginning to take himself way too seriously.
In 2001/02, the wheels came flying off. First, guitarist/founding member Mike Turner left the band. (Jeff and I were privy to his final show with Our Lady Peace, at the astouding Music Without Borders Live.) Then, the band teamed up with Bob Rock, the same record producer who got Metallica to go all sensitive-like when he added strings to “Nothing Else Matters”. In June 2002, the band released Gravity…and appropriately, it brought Our Lady Peace crashing down to earth. It was around this time that the details of the recording process started to leak out. Turner, it seems, was let go/decided to leave because he wasn’t willing to rock out; the band recruited a replacement (Steve Mazur) who seems like he was hired strictly for his ability to play in a drop-D tuning. Drummer Jeremy Taggart, meanwhile, was told to streamline his trademark drum sound (see: “Carnival” from Clumsy, arguably the most unmistakable drumming in the band’s oevre). The result was a transformation of the Our Lady Peace sound: they’d gone from being utterly unique to being utterly anonymous in about two steps.
Now…don’t get me wrong: I have absolutely no problem with a band changing the way it sounds, provided the transition feels seamless and organic. Pearl Jam’s sound changed about 180 degrees between Vitalogy and No Code, but it never sounded calculated. Gravity, by contrast, sounds like the work of a band that was desperate to shift more units–and if that sounds like I’m accusing the band of selling out, then you’ve successfully read between the lines. The band that foisted “Innocent” on the world is not–I repeat, is not–the same band that wrote Clumsy and Naveed, but rather a completely different group altogether. Again, I have no problem accepting change–provided the change has come naturally. There has never been a point where I’ve been listening to Gravity and thought to myself, “Hmm…yeah, I could see how they’d get to here.” As far as I’m concerned, that means they’ve sold out.
So why do I keep caring? Why should I devote a single blog entry, let alone two in two days, to a band that is very clearly past it? The answer lies in the opening paragraph: because at one point in my life, Our Lady Peace meant something to me. This wasn’t a cock rock outfit: this was a bunch of genuinely artistic guys who were producing, at one point in their careers, genuinely inspired rock n’ roll. Back in 1998, if you’d have asked me to name my favourite band, I’d probably have told you Our Lady Peace; for a few years I was as obsessed with them as I’ve ever been obsessed with Pearl Jam, the Minnesota Vikings or The Phantom of the Opera. It pains me to watch them regress because it forces me to question whether all that time or effort was worth it.
Listening to Clumsy, the answer is an unequivocal “yes”. No matter what Our Lady Peace has done in the last few years, they’ve still given me two of the albums which defined my youth…but as much as I’m willing to wait til Healthy in Paranoid Times is released to pass final judgement, I’ve got a feeling those two albums will be that much more important to me come August 30.