1992: “What a Good Boy” (Barenaked Ladies, Gordon)
There was a time, before “One Week” became the bane of every single karaoke night, before they came crashing into our living rooms kicking off The Big Bang Theory, when Barenaked Ladies were this endearingly quirky band that knew when to rein it in. On Gordon, they could go geek with a paean to middle school misery like “Grade Nine” but still pull out the poignancy on a “Brian Wilson.” They could be at one turn moody and bitter on “Hello City,” then all goofily in love on “You Can Be My Yoko Ono.” Maybe it was the fact that they simply repeated this formula on all their following albums, but they never quite struck this good a balance between their two natures. And they never recorded anything as plaintive and haunting — or as good — as “What a Good Boy.”
What strikes me most about this song is the words. They’re powerful in their simplicity, without the sometimes overly clever wordplay that marks so many of their other songs. Singer Steven Page lays himself bare here, whether he’s wondering, “If I pass, if I fail, if I drop out / Does anyone give a damn?” or describing how he “looked in the mirror / Watched TV, laid awake all night.” His crisp, clear voice is filled with emotion, a real sense of regret for the good boy he was once thought to be, and the good girl he seems to have lost touch with. And the image of “chains that hand around our necks / People want to strangle us with them before we take our first breath” really sticks with me, heavy with the weight of expectations never asked for, and seemingly impossible to meet.
I came to Gordon well after its initial release, some two or three years later, when the band was still relatively unknown outside its native Canada. And it caught me at a pretty big transitional time in my life, when financial and personal matters were doing a pretty good job of shredding me up. And “What a Good Boy” hit a good cathartic chord in me. I felt like as much a disappointment as Page seems to feel he is. I wondered if anyone gave a damn, and what happened to the good boy who walked out of Rollins with so much hope ahead of him. And yet, despite the generally down tone of the song, Page’s final run through the chorus never failed to lift me up a little. It was defiant against the glumness, a shout as opposed to a weary mutter, and I’d sing along with it at the top of my lungs just willing all the accumulated junk out of me.
I haven’t listened to any of Barenaked Ladies’ other albums in years, but Gordon still gets played pretty regularly. While “What a Good Boy” reminds me of some lean times, the other songs remind me that even through those times, there were friends and whimsical pursuits and plenty of laughter. I never did find out what happened to that good boy. But I came to realize it didn’t really matter. I had to be the boy I was instead of mourning the one I thought I should have been.