John Rzeznik may be touring with pop royalty like Darryl Hall and racking up the Hot AC format hit singles like nobody’s business, but at heart, he’s a Buffalo kid with a guitar and a past he’s still trying to outrun.
You can say what you like about the Goo Goo Dolls – and people in Buffalo undoubtedly will, as they always have, whether they’re celebrating the band’s enduring resonance in the broader pop world, or chiding them for “selling out” to stadium-pop success – but you can’t say the band doesn’t infuse its music with lessons that could have been learned in only our city, or one an awful lot like it.
“So Alive,” the first single from the band’s 11th studio album, “Boxes,” out this week, offers the perfect case in point. Atop a loping, piano- and acoustic guitar-led groove, Rzeznik, at 50, is in the mood to take stock and reflect. Facing life after “getting sober for the 50th time,” as he told the Huffington Post earlier this week, the singer offers a stirring anthem of desperate-but-serious self-affirmation, insisting that “You can make it on a wish if you want to.”
This is slickly produced alternative arena-pop, but Rzeznik’s sincerity cuts through the sonic mélange, as he owns up to a past where he repeatedly “took it to the edge.” This idea of the ever-returning potential for against-the-odds rebirth – it’s a Buffalo philosophy, to the core.
Preliminary buzz had it that the Goos – Rzeznik and 30-year partner, on-stage foil and musical consigliere Robby Takac, officially a duo following the 2013 firing of drummer Mike Malinin – were hoping to mess with the formula a bit this time around, that formula being the blend of late ’80s alternative rock and strident, anthemic power-pop that has been the band’s stock in trade since the mid-’90s success of “A Boy Named Goo.” Toward that end, Rzeznik and Takac enlisted a number of co-writers and co-producers for the crafting of “Boxes,” but lest ye jump to pejorative conclusions, the album is not some Rihanna-style multiproducer, songwriting-by-committee, cameo-drenched affair. From start to finish, there is a sense of purposeful sonic and conceptual continuity here, which is to suggest that “Boxes” delivers what its predecessor, 2013’s “Magnetic,” largely failed to.
That 2013 effort found Rzeznik working with outside songwriters for the first time in his career, presumably as an avenue toward bypassing writer’s block and finding inspiration through collaboration. “Magnetic’s” co-writes sound a touch forced in retrospect, as if someone behind the scenes was pushing for a surefire hit. If “Rebel Beat” sounded more like a band ripping off the Goo Goo Dolls than it did a true Rzeznik composition, “Boxes” never lets you forget that you’re listening to the guy who wrote “Iris,” “Here Is Gone,” “Black Balloon” and “Broadway.”
In addition to Takac’s affable and enjoyable contributions – the folk-inflected rocker “Prayer in My Pocket” and the cellphone-waving singalong “Free of Me” – the writing credits on “Boxes” include collaborations with Greg Wattenberg, Derek Fuhrman and Drew Pearson, who contribute to Rzeznik’s conceptions without being overbearing or attempting to turn them into One Republic hits or Katy Perry B-sides.
Opener “Over and Over” is a new Goos classic, as Pearson joins with Rzeznik, Takac and drummer Craig Macintyre to craft a jubilant rock anthem that sounds like it was tracked live off the studio floor. “Souls in the Machine” brings the giddy acoustic guitars that elevated “Dizzy Up the Girl” into the present tense, pairing them with a strident, hook-heavy anthem tailor-made for the arenas and sheds the Goos will be playing this summer. “The Pin” is a Rzeznik/Pearson co-write that strips back the production flourishes for its verses, presenting Rzeznik’s voice in an at first startling intimacy, before the chorus emphatically cashes the check – this thing has “hit” written all over it.
Like many other Goos fans who’ve been around since the band’s beginnings, I have my favorites – “Superstar Carwash” is the one for me, the perfect transitional album between what was and what would soon be, as Rzeznik’s songwriting flowered and major success came the band’s way. And sure, “Jed” can still be heard blasting from my windows on a summer eve spent with a few friends and few cold ones.
But that was then, and this is now. And in the now, the Goo Goo Dolls are all but the last band of their era standing – a guitar-based rock group signed to a major label writing hit songs and playing them in arenas. Within that milieu, the Goos have found a way to make another meaningful statement.