Sea of No Cares, the new album from Newfoundland’s Great Big Sea, opens with the following original insight:
“When you’re in love there’s no time and no space. There’s a permanent smile on your face. Your friends all complain that you’re going insane but the truth is they’re just afraid.”
And it goes downhill from there.
With lyrics as affecting and interesting as those found in a toothpaste commercial jingle, Sea of No Cares swims through an assortment of dull pop diatribes that at best sound like Barenaked Ladies Lite.
“Barenaked Ladies Lite?” you ask. “But if Barenaked Ladies got any lighter, wouldn’t they just float away into the atmosphere or something?” Yes. Yes, they would. And that’s exactly what I wished Great Big Sea would do, after barely getting halfway through this apocalyptic post-rock slop. It’s just this sort of spineless, glossy, insincere music that has led to the deterioration of true rock and roll. It has opened up a wide wound in rock, pulling modern audiences apart, dividing them into the sugary and the metallic. There is no longer any middle ground. You’re either VH1 or you’re MTV. You’re either soft rock or hard rock, but there’s no more plain rock.
What sets Great Big Sea apart from all its equally insulting counterparts, most of whom have set up camp in the adult-contempo charts, is the fact that this group punctuates its crappy original songs with crappy unoriginal songs — specifically, traditional Irish songs. Like everything else on the album, the band renders these completely toothless, turning the usually haunting, beautiful music of the Celtic isles into the musical equivalent of baby food. The texture is mushy, the taste an unworthy distortion of the ingredients that the bottle advertises. This isn’t traditional Irish at all. This is traditional Irish whipped until it’s unrecognizable and bland.
If I were Irish, I’d be insulted. As it turns out, I’m Welsh. So frankly I’m indifferent.
Traditional Irish music is sung in taverns and pubs — places of revelry, of fun, of subtextual danger. Half of the fun of traditional Irish music is the looming sense that in the middle of any song, a fight could break out. Feelings could get hurt. Great Big Sea couldn’t hurt feelings with a bandsaw. They would be completely out of place in a pub, God forbid they get into a fight. They’d be jailbait. The Pogues would mop the floor with them. The Chieftans would tear them apart — and they’re a bunch of old guys.
This is simply boring music. It’s boring to listen to, and it’s certainly boring to write about. Hell, I’m 250 words into this review and I’ve already run out of things to say. That last paragraph was pushing it as it is.
These songs leave no impression. They go in one ear and out the other, as irritating as the buzzing of a mosquito. But at least a mosquito leaves a bite that itches, that lingers for a few minutes. They don’t so much begin and end as they start and stop.
Still, the tracks trudge along workmanlike, along an emotionless musical conveyor belt, without any sign that anyone involved in the making of the album got any enjoyment out of playing his instrument. For all the candy Valentine lyricism on Sea of No Cares, all it’s sensitive proclamations of love, the album is coldblooded. It’s too numb to have any real heart. Every word rings false. Whether or not you enjoy the song styling of N’Sync, you must admit that when Justin Timberlake croons “I love you, baby” to a crowd of screaming pre-pubescents, he sells the line. We may know his heart belongs to Britney, but that hardly matters — there’s passion there, or at least the illusion of it.
Again, this dead-eyed romance is the byproduct of the widening chasm in the heart of rock. There are only so many ways for a soft-rocker (if that isn’t an oxymoron) to say “I love you, Emily” just as there are only so many ways for an angry young hard-rocker to scream “I hate you, dad!” In subgenres of limited ideas, there are bound to be limited means of expression. Still, the great voices of Motown managed to say “I love you” in hundreds of different ways without the message ever losing poignancy or energy. Good pop can make you forget that you’ve heard it all before. In the same way, though on the opposite side of the spectrum, “hard rock” groups are complicit with screaming the same angsty, shallow slogans over and over, adding nothing. Restating.
There was once a middle ground, a land where rock could be original, could have meaning AND soul, all while kicking serious ass. But this half-remembered place has been slashed in two, and pulled apart by two equally superficial wings of modern fad rock.
Sea of No Cares makes me long for the days of Hair Metal — when at least the icons of the genre took pride their lameness, reveled in their ridiculousness, and would “get in your face” if you didn’t. These guys are half-assed even in their lameness.
Great Big Sea cannot get in anyone’s face.
And it’s probably a good thing that they don’t try. They’d just get themselves beaten up by Van Morrison.