What were the Barenaked Ladies supposed to do in the aftermath of 1998’s Stunt? They had it all: Over four million copies sold, a number one single on Billboard’s Hot 100, multiple Junos, and nominations for a Grammy and an MTV VMA. After a career of ups and downs – from the goofy but catchy Gordon to the disappointing Maybe You Should Drive to the near miss of Born on a Pirate Ship and its compelling single “The Old Apartment” (a Jason Priestly-coached Hail Mary pass to all those who deal with pent-up bourgeois anxiety by fleeing in search of the good old days) to the rejuvenating Live Spectacle – their quirk and harmony and catchiness had finally conquered all. Courtesy of hits like “One Week” (“Chickity China…”), “It’s All Been Done”, and “Call and Answer”, the Ladies were finally both ubiquitous and beloved. What now?
As I had given up on the Ladies after Stunt and backtracked instead to the synth-infused appeals of the New Romantics, the above-mentioned questions regarding the band’s future were not particularly preoccupying until a few years ago when I found myself rooting through crates of CDs that my brother was planning on contributing to a neighbourhood garage sale. It was there that I found Maroon. I remember two thoughts. The first was one of frustration: It remains impossible for my brother Evan to pass on a CD without heavily scratching the jewel case’s cover and breaking said jewel case’s frail plastic arms. The second was one of curiosity: So here is the great follow-up to Stunt.
Other than the single “Pinch Me”, I knew nothing of Maroon, released in September 2000. After a listen, I found it compelling to perceive how the Ladies dealt directly and diversely with their own success. “Pinch Me”, the album’s first single, alludes to the nature, both oneiric and fleeting, of their achievements: “It’s like a dream you try to remember / But it’s gone / Then you try to scream / But it only comes out as a yawn”. After Ed Robertson raps the second chorus, Steven Page gracefully carries two important lines: “Pinch me, pinch me, ‘cause I’m still asleep / Please God, tell me that I’m still asleep”. The album’s first track, “Too Little Too Late”, and its accompanying music video tackle the delusions and doubts of pre- and post-millennium celebrity culture. In complimentary fashion, the Robertson-led “Falling for the First Time” establishes hindsight, not quite 20/20, with regards to questions of achievement.
Along with the title of the album, deeper cuts such as “Sell Sell Sell” and “The Humour of the Situation” also make reference to the potential side effects of success. Similarly, but this time bound up in an appropriately ironic and circus-like production, the album’s final track, “Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel”, communicates a relevant and over-ornate, almost-baroque form of exhaustion. As the album draws to an official conclusion, we’re left with an overall impression that band remains coherent but disappointed. The Barenaked Ladies can still craft and deliver stellar pop fare, but they sound tired, frustrated, and disillusioned. Is this what Stunt had done to them?
After the final song concluded, I watched in a still-puzzled silence as the CD player’s counter carried on. Just under ten seconds later, there are warm guitar strings and simple piano keys. A hidden track! It’s immediately uncharacteristic, as instead of Robertson or Page, Kevin Hearn, the Ladies’ multi-instrumentalist (but primarily their keyboardist) takes on the role of lead vocals. Compared to Robertson’s rapping and Page’s dry and sardonic yearn, Hearn’s delivery is moving given its rare simplicity: “Suddenly things become unsound / Stumbling on the shaky ground / Given arrows to shoot tornadoes down / Shoot them down, to the ground”. His chorus is similarly, and appropriately, heart-warming: “Inside ourselves / A hidden sun that burns and burns / But never does any harm to anyone”.
A modest instrumentation frames the song, “Hidden Sun”, without hindering Hearn’s intimate vocal performance. The use of guitar, piano, and percussion buttress the song’s warmth while a group of the other band members harmonize and fortify Hearn’s vulnerable but confident singing. This support is particularly striking when, as the hidden track concludes, Hearn steps back and an embracing instrumentation is brought to the fore.
What are we to draw from this performance? Themes of care, empathy, love, and friendship seem obvious. Are we to step outside the song in order to identify within it Hearn’s own battle with leukemia that followed a diagnosis just after the recording of Stunt? While such ideas are interesting, they might just betray the song’s overarching simple but necessary epistemological shift from not knowing to knowing, articulated perfectly in the second verse: “Shivering madly in the dark / Like an animal abandoned in the car park / And she held me and then showed me / The beauty of the human heart”. This is fundamental: Given the song’s indirect first nod to Maroon’s thematic of success and exhaustion, perhaps the most important component of “Hidden Sun” is its ability to simultaneously answer and make irrelevant the aforementioned questions about the band’s future post-Stunt. In simple terms, it is a return to the heartfelt, offering a reassurance that whatever successes were to come to pass, the Ladies had not lost their way. They had not lost their heart.
“Hidden Sun” – Barenaked Ladies
Music and lyrics by Kevin Hearn
B. Stafford is the 14th Floor’s Annex-based music critic.