Ga-Ga for the Goo Goos

Who knew that the Goo Goo Dolls would be around for 17 years? When the band first formed in 1985, it was a garage band, mimicking punk influences like the Replacements and the Ramones. The Goos’ first album, First Release, featured vocals and songs by bassist Robby Takac while guitarist Johnny Rzeznik played thrashing guitar in the background. In 1989, the Goos released Jed, which featured Rzeznik’s songs for the first time.

Over the next few releases, it became clear that Rzeznik’s acoustic and melodic pop sound was better suited for success than Takac’s sunny punk, and it was Rzeznik’s ballad, “Name,” that finally made the band in 1995. By the time the Goo Goo Dolls released 1998’s multi-platinum Dizzy Up the Girl (DUTG), Rzeznik handled the majority of the songwriting and the Goos were placed firmly in the mainstream.

DUTG was helped immensely by the success of “Iris,” the Goos’ contribution to the “City of Angels” soundtrack, but the album’s continued success resulted from a solid and consistent album that produced no fewer than four other hit singles – the melancholy “Black Balloon” not the least among them. The album was produced to shine and felt for the first time like a mainstream pop record – and the Goos sounded all the better for it.

Not much has changed on Gutterflower, the new Goo Goo Dolls album released in recent weeks. The band chose to keep with what brought them success on their previous album and for the most part, it works. Rzeznik penned eight of the 12 songs and each sounds exactly like what you’d expect it to. Anyone who has listened to the radio in the past five years knows that the Goos write catchy songs, and Gutterflower is no exception. The album often sounds more like a continuation of DUTG than an entirely new album, but that doesn’t stop it from being successful or an enjoyable listen. The band has an undeniable ability to craft good pop songs – a guilty pleasure to be sure, but still pleasant.

Gutterflower ends up in darker territory than DUTG ever ventured into, a turn which is undoubtedly a result of Rzeznik’s recent divorce. While DUTG often seemed overtly possessed with love songs, Gutterflower is much more focused on themes of loss and regret, indicated by song titles like “It’s Over” and the single receiving the most recent radio airtime, “Here is Gone.” Lyrically, Rzeznik still sounds like a teenager (“And I’m not sure where I belong/When nowhere’s home and I’m alone” from “Sympathy”), but at least he’s more jaded than he was four years ago. Most of the songs on Gutterflower aren’t as sunny as they were on DUTG. “What Do You Need” and “What a Scene” are about as heavily alternative as the Goos get nowadays, while “Truth Is a Whisper” is the dark and moody number closer to a likewise melancholy album.

Takac’s four songs sound like the idiosyncratic punk that characterized the Goo Goo Dolls in the beginning of their career. While not entirely a bad thing, one can’t help feeling like this is Rzeznik’s band now and Takac’s songs tend to disrupt any continuity or momentum that the album manages to garner. Takac is rougher, both vocally and musically, and next to the clean production of the rest of the album, Takac sounds a little out of place. He’s a good songwriter in his own right, but it’s a different kind of pop that tends to contrast sharply with the anthems that Rzeznik churns out.

Rzeznik has begun to experiment with solo outings outside of the group and it’s questionable how long two talented songwriters can coexist within one group, particularly when one clearly has the upper-hand commercially.

If Gutterflower ends up being less successful than DUTG, it’s due to the fact that DUTG simply had a better, more accessible set of songs. On DUTG, every song sounded like a successful single, and while it all sounds about the same on Gutterflower, Rzeznik isn’t quite as adept with his melodies. “It’s Over” tries to be anthemic, but falls a little short, whereas “Think About Me” simply lacks the hook of “Iris” or “Black Balloon.”

That being said, there’s a lot of quality material here, and though it’s still a guilty pleasure, this is a very enjoyable album. “Here is Gone” is about on par with anything the Goos have ever recorded, and the mandolin-driven “Sympathy” should eventually be a big hit on radio as well. Gutterflower is by no means a classic or redefining record, but it’s irresistibly listenable and should easily allow the Goo Goo Dolls to maintain the well-deserved popularity they earned with DUTG.

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