By Chris Moore:
RATING: 4 / 5 stars
Coming on the heels of the excellent post-Page BnL disc All in Good Time, “expectations” would be the key word when considering the aptly-titled Page One. Steven Page has already released two solo albums, but the Vanity Project was a side project (with much less risk involved) and A Singer Must Die with the Art of Time Ensemble was… well, covers played with an ensemble. They were both excellent: the former in and of itself and the latter for what it was.
In all practicality, Page One is the first true Steven Page solo album.
As such, it is an exercise in expressing his talents across a variety of genres. Some are tracks that could have fit seamlessly on previous Barenaked Ladies records. Others would simply never have fit in that venue.
This aforementioned variety is perhaps the most appealing feature of his debut. After all, the power pop appeal of such tracks as “Indecision” can only extend so far before one begins to go numb (taking notes, Brendan Benson?). And, with the exception of several moments of overproduced indulgence on tracks like “Entourage” and “Queen of America,” the dynamics of these twelve diverse tracks are admirably balanced to attain cohesion as an album.
And there are several moments of absolute perfection in style, sound, and tone. Take the opening lines of the first song, “A New Shore:” “As captain of this band of merry sailors I’m a black mark I’m a failure/So before you watch me drown/I’m relinquishing command for something I don’t understand/this man’s about to turn his whole life upside down.” Under any other circumstances, this nautical analogy might seem forced or cliched. However, as it marks his departure from the extraordinarily successful band that has served as the anchor (see, I can do it too!) of his entire musical career up to this point, it seems quite appropriate.
While I follow the juxtaposition of the “merry sailors,” arguably the other four members of BnL, and the color “black,” perhaps to indicate the more serious, introverted nature of Page’s material — think: “Bad Day” on the otherwise joyous and goofy Snacktime! — the term “failure” would seem an over-exaggeration.
Still, there are many fans of the nineties rock group who consider Page’s departure a betrayal. Some go so far as to condemn Page’s conduct in the year leading up to his exit as immoral and unforgivable.
Had this cocaine bust occurred several decades earlier or in a different band, he would have been elevated a level into rock superstar iconography, the stuff of legends.
Occurring when it did, and being who he is, Page has been vilified by the contingent of so-called family-friendly fans.
And yet, disappointed as I was to learn of the breakup, I did appreciate Page’s attitude. As he told one interviewer, “I keep saying to fans, ‘Just think: you get a two-for-one now. You get their records and my records.'”
This record tells a story of internal conflict, expressed in a direct and personal manner that would arguably have lost some resonance as the product of five member band. “Indecision” is the second track, the first single, and a signpost of sorts. If Page One is an exploration of the recent dramatic events of his life, then “Indecision” introduces the first of the destructive forces at work: namely, indecisiveness.
As Page sings, “I’m predisposed to have it/Happiest when I don’t know what to do/I want to settle down like my father/I want to run away like my mother ought to.”
This track may be read as a response of sorts to the Barenaked Ladies’ own 2010 single “You Run Away.” In that song, fell0w BnL co-founder Ed Robertson sings, “I’ll give you something you can cry about/One thing you should try it out/Hold a mirror shoulder high/When you’re older look you in the eye.” Page is clearly doing this, rooting his insecurities in analogies of the family (mother/father), and admitting that he thrives on a degree of ambiguity and perhaps even crisis.
The song that follows, “Clifton Springs,” is ostensibly a character narrative, and yet Page’s delivery of certain lines resonates as though the story speaks to a deeper, more personal connection. He sings, “My stigmata’s the regret for how/I could have let it all/Go so wrong.” The question here is, of course, does Page intend simply to create a story or is this an outlet for expressing his own sentiments? Other lines like “You’ve got to do what’s best for yourself” and references to “the ghosts of a life” coalesce with the thematic tones that recur across the other eleven tracks and seem to point to the latter.
(Still, devotee of the school of Dylan that I am, I acknowledge that speculation out of proportion can only serve to obscure music, not clarify it.)
The subsequent three tracks provide an array of perspectives on fidelity in general and marriage in particular. In “Entourage,” the singer seeks immediate pleasure in the form of sex, elevating the quest by the end of the song to state, “Now we’re through with morality,/can I sleep with your wife?/I want to be like you/And your entourage/Tonight.”
“Marry Me” follows with a proposal of marriage, albeit a decidedly perfunctory one, as it comes with the rationale “I know it’s the same all over the world.” The layers are further peeled back to reveal the heart of this figure’s matrimonial leanings: “Marry me…/Without our love, we’d just be normal people marching forward/Normal people? Who? You and Me? It can’t be!” In each case — the looser groupie and the norm-conscious fiance-to-be — the ultimate motivation is satisfaction, whether it be physical or psychological.
The third installment in this anti-matrimonial trilogy is “All the Young Monogamists,” in which the singer and his partner observe the young couples they see, smiling to themselves as they “know what’s in store.” As Page sings, “As they gaze into the eyes/Of the one they love/They can feel inside of them/That this is not enough.” After expressing this existential emptiness and offering up four unpromising outcomes — tiring out, running away, sleeping around, or settling — the narrator ultimately finds himself coming full circle as he embarks on a monogamous relationship, promising “I will always be true to you.”
So, there is some optimism to cling to, after all.
This is followed by the one-two power-pop punch of “She’s Trying to Save Me” and “Over Joy,” songs which explore that second destructive force: depression. This is a familiar force, one which has crept into the undertones — and, sometimes, overtones — of Page’s previous work. And these are excellent, if not groundbreaking, efforts. The former has “second single” written all over it, and the latter comes off as the Vanity Project’s answer to Wilco’s “Please Be Patient With Me.”
I would have pegged a track nine with a title like “If You Love Me” to be the mid-album slow song, but no dice. The rock rolls on. The phrasing here is of interest, placing the onus of relationship maintenance on the other party. “IF you love me,” Page sings, “Everything will be all right tonight.”
“Leave Her Alone” follows, and is arguably the most dynamic track on the album. If “All the Young Monogamists” could have been a candidate for A Singer Must Die, then “Leave Her Alone” is a brilliant blend between rock, pop, big band, and orchestral music. This song boasts some of the strongest and bluntest lyrics, ranging from eloquent introspection (“Rephrasing the hazing amazed at/how cruel men could be,/I saw they were no different from me”) to baser internal rhymes (“And subsequent cities were shitty as well”).
Then comes “Queen of America,” the one song I’ve been unable to place on the Page One spectrum. Truth be told, it sounds like an outtake from a Scissor Sisters album in topic, tone, and closing voice-over.
Page One wraps up fittingly with “The Chorus Girl,” the first of his songs to take a deep breath. I’ll leave this one for you to discover on your own, but suffice it to say that every other song is a step leading up to this track.
Oh, and there is a winking reference to cocaine to rival Ed Robertson’s All in Good Time line, “You crash the party, I’ll crash the plane.”
In most respects, Page One lives up to expectations. There is no denying that it is bittersweet to hold the BnL and Steven Page releases side by side and to realize that they each contain aspects that the other does not, and perhaps cannot. This being said, I see no value in lamenting the breakup. Instead, it would be best that fans follow Page’s logic and embrace this two-for-one deal. If we respect and perhaps even trust these five men, this split must have been a positive and necessary development, and it has at the very least yielded some of the most urgent, passionate music of their recent career.
If only for now, that should be enough.