25 Years Later, It’s Time To Defend The Goo Goo Dolls’ Best Album
We don’t want the world to judge this band by that one song. Please.
In the spring and summer of 1998, there was one song just in the air, and that song was “Iris.” No matter your age, music preferences, or general awareness of pop radio, you heard it, wafting through the ether like a spell cast around the globe, the kind of song that permeates and lingers whether you like it or not. The Goo Goo Dolls are one of those ‘90s bands that you either heard a few songs from, or you actually loved. And, let's face it, most fall into the former category. But, twenty-five years later, after the album Dizzy Up the Girl dropped on September 22, 1998, the truth is, this record was much better than it had any right to be, and was perhaps, unfairly eclipsed by that oh-so-precious hit single.
If “Name” — the hit single from the 1995 album A Boy Named Goo — made the Goo Goo Dolls a pop music force, then “Iris” made them stratospheric titans of the kind of ballad-laden guitar pop they'd been developing and perfecting for a while. Originally released for the Nic Cage tragic romance, City of Angels soundtrack, the song and its accompanying music video hit phenomenon status that spring and just never stopped. If you were around and listening to the radio at any point in the last eight months of that year, “Iris” was in your head. And for those of us a certain age, somehow, having a haircut like Johnny Rzeznik was not only desirable but also, bizarrely elusive.
In fact, it’s very possible that one of the reasons that some folks don’t take the Goo Goo Dolls seriously is linked to Rzeznik’s hair and overall vibe. Was he a kind of elder poster child for guys who wore Abercrombie & Fitch and shopped for puka shell necklaces at PacSun? Yes, but that was not his fault. By 1998, the effortlessly cool grunge look of many American rock bands had given way to whatever faux-surfer thing was happening with Rzeznik, and to a lesser degree, the soul patches of Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray.
But, Goo Goo Dolls, technically, had been a band since 1986, which goes a long way in explaining Rzeznik’s borderline hair-metal look. While it seems like they appeared, fully formed in 1995 with “Name,” this was a journeyman band, on a long quest. If there’s one aspect of pop history you want to impart to your kids here, it’s simple: Don’t judge a band by their haircuts. Or, if you do, try to fight that bias from time to time.
Five months after “Iris” first hit the airwaves, the Goo Goo Dolls followed up their smash single with Dizzy Up the Girl, the band's sixth studio album and their first since A Boy Named Goo Powered by the success of the single, it made sense that Dizzy Up the Girl would be a big seller right away, but when you look at the final track listing, you'll notice that the Dolls did something interesting with the song that had become their calling card. On a 13-track album, “Iris” is embedded way down the lineup at number 11. It's not even the first ballad on the record, nor is it the closing track designed to take things out on a high note. Glancing at the tracks as they're laid out on the back cover of the album, you'd think the song was almost an afterthought.
“Iris,” of course, could never be an afterthought even if the band was sick of playing it by the time Dizzy Up the Girl arrived, but its placement on the album is telling. For all the success of that single, Dizzy somehow manages to eclipse it as a musical achievement, delivering a dizzying (pun very much intended) 13-track experience that encapsulates everything the Goo Goo Dolls had grown into, everything appealing about their long-developing sound, and everything that would help them to endure. A quarter century later, the album is so much more than its signature song. So what tracks prove that? Let’s dig in.
The record's opening track, “Dizzy,” launches with chugging guitars and almost no sense of preamble, no buildup to the rocker energy laced through the song. It's almost a headbanger, a distortion-laden ode to the grungier, more alternative rock that formed the band's foundation for the first decade or so of its existence. Then comes the chorus, and John Rzeznik's ballad instincts kick in with a hook that reminds you who you're listening to, and what they're capable of. In an instant, it all comes together. The Goo Goo Dolls have not forgotten where they came from, but they also know perfectly well where they're going.
The follow-up track, “Slide,” carries that feeling forward with an immediately catchy acoustic riff – another product of Rzeznik's eternal fondness for alternate guitar tunings – and a bouncy tempo that means you don't realize the song's about abortion until the third or fourth listen. The album's second most successful single, it's also the perfect distillation of the kind of sound the Dolls would aim for on this and subsequent albums, a blend of bouncy guitar pop and luxuriant, yearning lyrics.
But the distorted, gritty guitar sounds of the band's earlier work are never far away, as evidenced by the four tracks devoted to the vocals and lyrics of Robby Takac, the band's bassist and Rzeznik's eternal partner in crime. Through “January Friend,” “Amigone,” “Full Forever,” and “Extra Pale,” Takac proves that his growling vocals not only still have a place in the band's sound, but serve as a perfect complement to Rzeznik's aching, only-slightly-raspy singing style.
More than vocal and songwriting contrasts, though, there's a dynamism to the paired sensibilities of Rzeznik and Takac – the only two constants in the Goo Goo Dolls lineup over the years – that makes Dizzy Up the Girl stand as the band's best work, as well as their eternal calling card that sums up their definitive sound. Even on the album's most straight-up ballads – “Iris” and its fellow acoustic-driven brooder “Black Balloon” – there's a sense of alternative rock experimentation creeping in, from the slide guitar break on the former song to the harmonics that open the latter. Then there are the songs that blend the heavy with the soft, like “Dizzy” with its ballad-y course, "Broadway" with its biting guitar accents, and of course, the album's closer “Hate This Place,” a song so full of longing that it dares you to start the whole listening experience over again, just so you don't have to leave the band for a second.
All this combines to create a listening experience that, 25 years later, doesn't feel like a band shifting its sound to cater to Hot 100 listeners or movie soundtracks. Sure, those things happened for the Goo Goo Dolls with increasing frequency from the moment “Iris” hit the radio and MTV, but Dizzy Up the Girl is not an album that tells the story of a pop music sellout. Instead, it's the story of a band evolving its sound into something that allows them to embrace a more populist sound while also hitting their alternative roots with frequent, joyous abandon. There's a lot of joy in Dizzy Up the Girl, despite its somewhat obvious melancholy lyrics. Listen to it now, and it won't just sound like the perfect encapsulation of 1998, but like a band that found its way, and dove in with graceful, infectious glee.