Tuesday, November 18, 2014

album review: 'no fixed address' by nickelback

I know a lot of people who hate Nickelback.

And here's the thing, most of you don't get it if you don't live up here in Canada. For as much as Nickelback ruled the radio across the Bush administration, they were much more omnipresent here in Canada, where regulations require the radio play a certain amount of Canadian content. And sure, we get Metric, Marianas Trench, Serena Ryder, and a slew of other great Canadian acts, but it also means that of the many singles Nickelback charts, they all get airplay up here.

And it's probably from that broader point-of-view that I can say this with certainty - trust a guy who knows, there are a lot worse bands than Nickelback. The band got hit with the 'worst band ever' label not because they were legitimately that much more terrible than their peers - when Three Days Grace, Creed, Seether, Hinder, and Theory Of A Deadman have produced far worse music - but Nickelback were everywhere in the 2000s and that's made their mediocrity a lot easier to hate. Now granted, Nickelback have written some terrible songs, especially when they were trying to go for any pretensions of depth, but there was a place for a few of them, when they catered to the lowest common denominator of hard rock debauchery and sleaze. And to be fair, it was a much better fit for Chad Kroeger's voice than the insufferable bitching of songs like 'This Is How You Remind Me' or 'Someday' or 'Saving Me' or the pretentious platitudes of 'Gonna Be Somebody', 'If Today Was Your Last Day', and especially 'If Everyone Cared'. To me, Nickelback worked best on grimy tracks about fighting, drinking, screwing, and behaving like swaggering rock star assholes, completely awash in bad taste almost analogous to Katy Perry.

Now some of you are inevitably thinking, 'Wait, you rip on bro-country all the time when it gets sleazy and ignorant in much of the same formula, are you seriously giving Nickelback a pass'? And let me make this clear, I'm not doing that - catering to the lowest common denominator will only get you so far, and Nickelback can get away with more than most mostly thanks to Chad Kroeger having a lot of presence behind the mic, the band developing more of a rock edge, and some genuinely solid songs like 'This Afternoon' and 'Burn It To The Ground'. But there are huge tracts of their discography that pushes the sleaze into uncomfortable territory, and it's rarely enough fun to back it up. But most of the hatred they get isn't for that reason - no, it's not about hating Nickelback but hating the fans of Nickelback for supposedly giving them a free pass - something that rings more than a little hypocritical from some critics who have praised similar brands of vulgarity when it comes from hip-hop or metal or R&B. Say what you will about Nickelback's Dark Horse, for as gross as most of the album is, at least it's honest and knows what it is.

That being said, with Nickelback's commercial decline in the 2010s, they have aimed to diversify their sound a bit. Recruiting Joey Moi to produce for their 2011 album Here And Now proved surprisingly effective in adding some punch and meat to their usual formula, although that album felt bogged down in unnecessary and really quite embarrassing ballads. In other words, I had no idea how good their newest album No Fixed Address would turn out to be - so what did we get?

Oh boy, I wasn't expecting this. Where the Foo Fighters promised a grander thematic focus and instead delivered another album that sounded distinctly like the Foo Fighters, Nickelback's attempts at experimentation on No Fixed Address have led to a record that flies completely off the rails. I don't think I've heard an album sound this fragmented, confused, and desperate all year, the desperate scrabbling for some unique sound and identity that crosses a half dozen genres and doesn't bring together the slightest element of cohesion. And yet, can I say there are some passable songs on this record, tracks I can enjoy? Well, a few, but for as much as this record flails around, it doesn't exactly land a lot of hits.

So let's start with our frontman Chad Kroeger, one of the most divisive points with regards to Nickelback as a whole. You either like or dislike his voice, and for me, I can tolerate it more than most - but you can tell it has taken a beating over the past few years. It reminds me a lot of the same strain that's happened to Garth Brooks' voice, with his lower, thicker range that he usually used to add visceral grit and some texture to his howls feeling worn away. Here, he's stuck more in his midrange, which even with multi-tracking sounds a fair bit thinner and less potent. It doesn't help that with obvious layers of obvious pitch correction and vocal effects, that vocal punch is diluted further.

Granted, the production is all over the place on this record, which takes us to the instrumentation. Which, to be blunt, is a complete mess. I can't tell you how badly Mutt Lange and Joey Moi are missed here behind the soundboard, because at least they brought some consistent snarl and colour to the guitars, because the opening tracks go for a flat, down-tuned slurry that barely has any snarl or heft behind it, with terminally underweight bass lines and a wet-sounding vocal filter that I get the uneasy feeling the band thought was psychedelic on 'Million Miles An Hour'. It's followed by 'What Are You Waiting For', that tries to go for synth and drum-machine driven rock with some acoustic texture, but it just curdles into a thin, underwhelming mess. And that's before we get the sleazy, borderline-funk grime of 'She Keeps Me Up', the Poets of The Fall-esque vocal leads punching up the noisy drums and terminally underweight groove of 'Make Me Believe Again', the chugging groove-heavy borderline country rock 'Get Em Up' and 'Sister Sin', the latter that tries to blend lo-fi vocals, heavy strumming and percussion, and gang vocals in a song that really should kick more ass than it does. And then there's the arena rock styling of 'The Hammer's Coming Down' that almost reminds me of uptuned Linkin Park with more grandiose ambitions! Granted, I'd take that over the tepid midtempo vibe of 'Satellite' or the twinkling chimes and steel drums on the overmixed 'Miss You' or the popping beat, horns, and out-of-nowhere Flo Rida guest verse of 'Got Me Runnin' Round'.

And here's what bothers me: there are moments of texture and presence I actually liked - I didn't mind the more groove-heavy country rock style and the piano lead-in to 'The Hammer's Coming Down' was solid, and the rollicking pseudo funk of 'She Keeps Me Up' almost reminds me a little of the trashier side of Wild Cherry, and that was fun. But the big problem of this experimentation is that all of the ventures into different genres feel painfully calculated and nowhere near as potent. Nickelback wants to get political for a minute with 'Edge Of A Revolution', but they never invest enough in the heaviness, grit, or quicker tempo to reach the hardcore punk vibe they were trying to get. They strike towards alternative metal and country rock, but the guitar textures and percussion always feel a little too clean and lightweight to really hit me, not getting the grime or intensity of their influences and never willing to compromise that radio airplay. And the inclusion of obvious drum machines and synths make it obvious how little cohesion and investment Nickelback has in these experiments beyond desperate grabs for whatever's popular on rock radio right now. 

And now we come to lyrics - and really, lyrics for Nickelback fall into two categories: earnest, pseudo-inspirational and really not all that interesting; and sleazy and tasteless, the latter of which they do a lot better. A good half of this album falls into the first category, complete with bafflingly weak 'love songs' like 'Satellite', the sloppily written and bizarrely chipper 'Miss You', and the really weird vibe of 'Got Me Runnin' Round', half pure leering sleaze and half trying to ground it in meeting the girl's parents and buying her things and yet it's played so broad - especially with Flo Rida's verse - that I don't know if it's a joke! That pseudo-comedy vibe comes up again on 'Get Em Up', where the narrator and his boys sketch out a plan to rob a bank in just the same language of a dance song only to realize the bank was closed because it was Sunday. And maybe it's just me, but perhaps it was a bad decision to pick one of the heaviest instrumentals on this album and pair it with decidedly goofy lyrics that definitely do not make Nickelback look awesome! It's part of the same noxious self-awareness that Nickelback has that sours me on their big hit 'Rockstar', a song that tried to satirize rock star hedonism and being a badass - yet in reality those are the songs where Nickelback sounds the best or at least the most convincing! The whiskey-stained 'Sister Sin', the acid freakout of 'Million Miles An Hour' and especially the twitchy, obvious cocaine references of 'She Keeps Me Up' are a much stronger fit lyrically for Nickelback. Hell, all the double entendres in that song almost seemed a little too subtle for the band - until I realized it was co-written by Marianas Trench frontman Josh Ramsay. He also co-wrote 'Satellite', and it makes sense why it's a little too sentimental for Nickelback to pull off convincingly. And as for more NIckelback's more broad material, only 'The Hammer's Coming Down' really landed for me, mostly thanks to the darker, more apocalyptic vibe. 

Look, at the end of the day, it's a Nickelback record - they've long ago stopped giving a damn what critics like me think or say. But this is an album stretched thin, flailing desperately to find a mainstream-accessible lane since post-grunge isn't as viable in the mainstream, and yet never committed enough to make any of that experimentation stick. Pair that with sloppy production and you get an album that is less of a curiosity to examine than a frustrating case study of a band that's become lost years after their commercial peak - in other words, a lot like 50 Cent's most recent comeback album earlier this year. And No Fixed Address is getting the same rating that album did, a 5/10 and only a recommendation to hardcore Nickelback fans and anyone curious to see where Nickelback is going. After all, the album is called No Fixed Address - it's rare that titles are so apt and unintentionally revealing.

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