Sonic Doom: Nickelback
In Sonic Doom, we delve exclusively into the back catalogue of critically-reviled acts in a bid to discover the odd unstained gem. First up, Conor Donohoe checks in with Canadian pub band done good Nickelback, who, astonishingly, turn 20 years old this year.
I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve ever spoken to who can stand Nickelback. Honestly, I could probably count them on one finger. Yet right up to my late teens, I can remember having something of a soft spot for them, and would futilely try to defend them whenever they were brought up in conversation.
I would make the point that, for every sugary sweet, manufactured radio rock ballad they would unleash into the charts (that everyone based their opinions of them on), they would have a handful of faster, heavier, and generally much better songs. I’d also try to reason (probably more with myself than anyone else) that they were just a bit of craic; they weren’t there to be taken seriously, and I wasn’t taking them seriously either. Surely there’s nothing wrong with a bit of cheesy pop rock when the mood strikes? Everyone has that one band they’re mildly embarrassed about, don’t they?
A few years on since I last listened to them with any degree of regularity, I decided to subject myself to a strict musical diet for a week – nothing but Nickelback’s studio releases – to see if my previous convictions about them would stand the tests of time and endurance.
The short answer is, rather predictably, no. It was an often harrowing, exhausting endeavour I don’t wish to repeat.
The long answer is a bit more complicated than that, but one thing that isn’t complicated is the trajectory of Nickelback’s career to date. It’s a tale of a band that sputtered into existence to little fanfare, before stumbling onto entirely unexpected chart success, and ever since then have been chasing the same level of recognition and not quite managing it, like an addict’s doomed attempt to recreate the feeling of that first high.
1996 debut Curb certainly gave no indication that they would ever make it. Off the back of a dying grunge scene, and when the rock/metal scene was generally in flux, Curb had very little personality to make it stand out from the crowd. There was no obvious effort to conquer the charts with this one, and that’s probably to its detriment. It’s mostly devoid of any memorable hooks, verses or choruses whatsoever (the fairly decent ‘Fly’ aside), and Kroeger and co. clearly either had no interest at this point in mainstream commerical success, or hadn’t learned how to craft rock for radio just yet. It’s worth noting as well that at this point, Nickelback were being labelled as post-grunge, but that’s absolute bollocks, considering that ‘post-grunge’ is a completely mythical sub-genre dreamt up by pedants, and that Curb wasn’t fit tie the laces of its supposed grunge predecessors.
However, there were indications of a definite improvement with 1999’s The State, although it still isn’t something you could consider memorable. The State ebbs and flows far better than Curb, and each song is more distinct this time around. It sounds like a band who had grown in confidence after getting a difficult first album out of the way. While The State in isolation still didn’t necessarily hint at future chart success, the single ‘Leader of Men’ was their first song that may have foreshadowed something bigger to come for them.
That something bigger was, of course, 2000’s Silver Side Up, with its singles ‘How You Remind Me’ and ‘Too Bad’ (which I maintain to this day is Nickelback’s crowning achievement) catapulting them into the public consciousness. Kroeger had allegedly started listening to chart hits and deconstructing them to figure out what made them popular, and applied what he had learned to Silver Side Up. It’s very evident throughout the album – all of a sudden, the choruses are much more catchy and easy on the ear, the individual components of each song sound less disjointed, and the production values had gone up a few notches. And it’s for those very reasons why this isn’t a bad album. In fact, it’s easily the best material in their catalogue. It flirts successfully with mainstream commercial success while also remaining palatable for a more traditional rock audience. It has its fair share of weak tracks, but even some its heavier offerings such as ‘Where Do I Hide’ and ‘Hangnail’ are head and shoulders above most tracks from the previous two albums. It is, essentially, the sound of a band relieved that it had found what it was most comfortable with.
From here on, though, is where the gravity of this undertaking I’d set myself began to hit home. There’s little point in discussing the succeeding albums in any great depth individually, because they’re all part of the same downward, sorry trajectory towards this gem right here:
2003’s The Long Road signalled the thematic and lyrical shift in Nickelback’s music to explore the three pillars of drinkin’, fightin’ and fuckin’, and contains thought-provoking poetry such as “I like your pants around your feet/ And I like the dirt that’s on your knees/ And I like the way you still say please/ While you’re lookin’ up at me/ You’re like my favourite damn disease” (from ‘Figured You Out’). Charming. 2005’s All The Right Reasons gave us numerous singles that most notably included Photograph and the vomit-inducing ‘Rock Star’, and further gravitated towards brain-dead themes and god awful lyrics in the heavier tracks. The less said about 2008’s Dark Horse the better, while their two most recent efforts, Here and Now and No Fixed Address, may as well be the same album (the only distinguishing feature in the latter being Flo Rida’s bizarre cameo). Listening to those five albums in such close succession is a numbing experience, to say the least, and really hammers home how similar a lot of their music starts to sound as the years go on.
One of the more jarring aspects of my self-imposed musical exile is the thematic contradiction present in their music throughout the 2000s to date. Kroeger croons about lost loves as regularly as he snarls about strippers and prostitutes; he sings about social harmony and letting the good times roll just as often as he sings about getting pissed and violent or setting things on fire. It lends their discography a real sense of insincerity. I can accept that they’re trying to appeal to as wide a demographic as they possibly can, and they’re perfectly entitled to do that, but I’ve yet to see a band that has their overarching message as muddled as Nickelback does.
My conviction that their heavier material that’s rarely seen in the mainstream excuses them from some of their more gruesome chart hits also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. While they are capable of some hard-hitting riffs, the heaviness usually stems from meaty production values than any real guitar artistry. The lyrical content of most of these songs as well, particularly from All The Right Reasons onwards, ruins anything good the music might have had going. For instance, ‘Next Go Round’ from Dark Horse is one of the brighter points from the latter half of their career (with an absolute belter of a party rock chorus), but lines like “I wanna cover you with jello in the tub/ We can roll around for hours without ever coming up/ I want you naked with your favourite heels on/ Slap John Deere across my ass and ride me up and down the lawn” are absolutely unforgivable and wrench you out of any enjoyment you may have been experiencing.
Yet, for all of my newfound problems with them, there is something about them worth defending. They were a band who, with two lukewarm albums already under their belt, made a conscious decision to gear their creative process towards commercial success, and achieved it at the first time of asking with Silver Side Up and its singles. You could spin that as ‘selling out’ (and in all honesty this is a textbook definition of that term) but this is what they wanted to become, and they’ve built up a huge following in the face of unrelenting criticism. Nickelback will be around for a lot longer than a lot of people and critics wanted them to be, and they will continue to do their thing with unapologetic pomp and swagger. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and I don’t get the impression that they want their audience to either. I think they have to be admired in a way and applauded for that.
Having said all that, if I hear another song from them any time in the next couple of years, I cannot be held responsible for my actions.