Welcome to Escape From Pop Purgatory, where we check out new music made by people who are more well known than 98 percent of the oppressively “cool” artists who the media obsesses over, and yet are commonly perceived to be years past the point of their cultural relevance. (Pop Purgatory is fame plus time.) Because we’re unwilling to let albums released by established if unfashionable pop culture institutions come and go without a proper listen, we’re giving these damned souls a shot at redemption — or at least some much-needed publicity outside of their respective fan bubbles. In this installment, we look at Magnetic, the latest LP from the ultimate ’90s alt-rock radio band, the Goo Goo Dolls.
Period of Peak Fame: 1995-99. The Goo Goo Dolls spent a decade in the rock trenches as an indifferently regarded (but actually pretty good!) Replacements retread before the tender power ballad “Name” (from 1995’s otherwise rocking and highly enjoyable A Boy Named Goo) broke through on pop radio. With 1998’s multi-platinum Dizzy Up the Girl, the Goo Goo Dolls finally surpassed the ’Mats by producing a Don’t Tell a Soul–like sellout record with actual hits on it, including “Slide,” “Black Balloon,” and the indomitable “Iris,” the love theme from the “undead Nic Cage romances Meg Ryan” film, City of Angels. By this time, the Goo Goo Dolls ruled the roost of late-stage radio-friendly alt-rock with surprising ruthlessness — the band registered two songs in the top 10 of Billboard’s list of most popular radio tracks in all genres from 1992 to 2012, with “Iris” coming in at no. 1.
What’s Happened Since: The Goo Goo Dolls’ chart fortunes cooled a bit once undead Nic Cage films took a bad-ass, love-theme-less turn in the 21st century. But it was hardly a steep drop-off: Both 2002’s Gutterflower and ’06’s Let Love In went gold, and ’10’s Something for the Rest of Us charted in the Top 10. What’s been missing is memorable singles: The lifeblood of Goo Goo Dolls success was slickly packaged ear candy turned out in a solidly professional manner — even songs that weren’t hugely popular in the mid- and late-’90s (like the Dizzy Up the Girl sorta-hit “Broadway” and the great “Long Way Down,” which single-handedly justified the Twister soundtrack) hold up years later as clandestine workday Spotify spins.
Where Are They Now: With Magnetic, the Goo Goo Dolls had two options: (1) Cater to the base and basically make another Dizzy Up the Girl (in time for the album’s 15th anniversary), which would mean going heavy on the muscular Spic and Span guitars; or (2) Try to make a contemporary pop record, because at heart the Goo Goo Dolls are mercenary pop-poodles and the radio is a leg they can’t not compulsively hump. Sadly, they went with option no. 2. The songwriting credits on Magnetic are filthy with record-industry hacks and hired guns like Gregg Wattenberg (co-producer of Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister”), John Shanks (producer of two mid-’00s Ashlee Simpson records, as well as Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth), and J.T. Harding (co-writer of Uncle Kracker’s icky-sweet “Smile”). It’s an album aimed squarely at the hot-and-heavy adult contemporary market — not an unwise marketing move for a band whose members are nearing 50, though it dilutes the appeal of Magnetic for diehards who might be reasonably excited about a Goo Goo Dolls record in 2013. The lack of guitars on Magnetic is disheartening — the shopworn “electronic” accoutrements cluttering this album would’ve sounded tired and obvious coming from reinvention-seeking rockers back when “Iris” was on the radio 20 times an hour. Magnetic sounds like a 1998 version of a “modern” rock record when it should sound like a 1998 version of the Goo Goo Dolls.
Representative Track: The only song on Magnetic that gives us that Goo Goo Dolls feeling is Robby Takac’s likably flannelled-out rocker “Bringing on the Light.” Unfortunately, the Wattenberg-assisted “Come to Me” is more representative of the album — it’s Magnetic’s most craven Hail Mary pass for a hit song, blatantly imitating the most overly imitated sound haunting the non-hallowed halls of rock radio, Lumineers-y “hey!” folk. Johnny Rzeznik’s waxy makeup seems modest compared with this shamelessness.
Escape From Pop Purgatory: Not this time, sorry. Come back when you’re ready to do a Dizzy Up the Girl anniversary tour.