A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the vinyl reissue of Clumsy by Our Lady Peace.
With the knowledge of what Clumsy would ultimately become in the context of Our Lady Peace‘s catalogue already a matter of public record (it was a runaway success; it was certified Diamond – one million copies sold – in Canada, was the band’s Relativity Records debut in the U.S. And was certified Platinum – again, one million copies sold – there as well), the possibility that the making of the album was laborious may come as a surprise – but that is the fact of the matter. Not only that, it could be said that the process which ultimately yielded Our Lady Peace’s second album had the makings of being a ‘sophomore slump’ written all over it.
When the band members attempted to write songs on their own, they didn’t come up with much and their first co-writing session with producer (and Frozen Ghost alumnus) Arnold Lanni turned out poorly. Placed back before the drawing board, the band replaced bassist Duncan Eacrett with Duncan Coutts [there had been talk of firing guitarist Mike Turner, but that was abandoned when he threatened legal action] and started writing again – eventually coming up with a set of songs the group felt confident in recording. It was then that production commenced at Lanni’s Arnyard Studios, and the results proved to be absolutely remarkable in spite of the toxic start.
Unlike the comparatively earnest Naveed, Clumsy opens with what feels like a subdued and lugubrious vibration in the earliest moments of the album’s opening track, “Superman’s Dead.” There, generally sad sonics make it feel as though the battle that OLP was preparing for was already waged and the good guys lost; with a fairly muted acoustic guitar progression at the helm, singer Raine Maida picks himself up already weary and defeated-sounding (there is no other way to characterize these lyrics: “Do you worry that you’re not liked?/ How long ’til you break?/ You’re cause you smile/ But how much can you take?”) before winding up with equal amounts of fury and passion (with the “Alone” rejoinder) and just exploding with the title lyric.
Now, regarding that title lyric – it might not carry as much weight years after the fact, but the moment when Doomsday “killed” Superman in 1993 set into motion a new trend in comic books. That moment would be followed by other heroes proving to be mortal (Batman got his back broken in July 1993 and Hal “Green Lantern” Jordan went crazy in 1994 and started calling himself Parallax before sacrificing his life and becoming The Spectre in 2001 – among other such storylines) and that event did cross over into other media and art forms – but Our Lady Peace was the band who not only brought the phenomenon to rock, they truly sounded as though such artistic developments were personally affecting.
In this particular case, Maida comes off as angry, betrayed and disillusioned to the point of sounding as though he’s nearly in tears by the event. The singer wrings all the emotion he’s able into the song and the result is a thing which transcends both of the media being incorporated (both rock and comic books) and, in the end, listeners will simply find themselves overcome and engrossed by the song and after they’ve heard it a couple of times, they’ll at least be humming along. In that regard, Clumsy opens with a genuine triumph capable of getting all those who hear it on board.
And after they’re hooked, listeners find that the plot only thickens as the album’s A-side continues. “Automatic Flowers” sees the album’s play spontaneously shift into a simmering, seething work of psychological unrest before “Carnival” follows it with a flavor of malaise which is just too meticulously detailed to be just put on. There, lines like “You’re frustrated by the cracks in the pavement…” could be easily seen as trite in any other context or performed by any other band but, here, they take on an engaging, surrealist and emotive tone which makes the song feel like the work of a true survivor rather than just a work of fiction.
After “Carnival,” “Big Dumb Rocket” finally gets a bit of ‘rock’ energy going and saves the album’s A-side from simply feeling solid but overwrought before the side back pedals in the best possible way and closes with the album’s pinnacle ballad, “4am.”
Calling “4am” a very dramatic expression only betrays a gift for understatement (as one listens, it’s easy to imagine the band pausing to play “4am” in concert and the crowd beginning to sing along arm-in-arm), but it’s also impossible to deny that the band has finessed something timeless out of themselves here too; lines like “If I don’t make it know that I loved you all along/ Just like sunny days that we ignore because/We’re all dumb and jaded/ And I hope to God I figure out what’s wrong” align with perfect pop classicism as well as alt-rock ennui in a manner which far exceeds the work which many bands are able to compose ten years (or more) into their careers. As it plays, the song casts a perfect spell over those listening and wins them, utterly.
As well as Clumsy‘s A-side plays (and it truly does – not for nothing did most of the album’s singles originate from it), it’s hard not to quietly hope for something different of the B-side as one sinks a needle into it. Even twenty years after the fact, there’s no denying that it would be difficult to appreciate a second side of the same sort of fare. Perhaps knowing that, both the band and producer elected to load the flipside of the album with heavier rock songs which proves to be incredibly engaging as it plays; the immediacy of the shift in tempo is apparent from the moment “Shaking” opens the running with an almost schoolyard rhythm and melody.
There, Raine Maida really throws himself into the role of detached and broken survivor (check out lines like “So you fucked up again/ It’s time for you to leave/ You never had many friends/ And you thought this was alright”), but the band, for their part, crosses a swagger and a stomp to arrive at an infectious and furious mid-tempo barn-burner which is the closest approximation listeners will find to a Naveed version 2.0 rocker on Clumsy. After that, while the title track back-pedals into balladry well enough for contrast, the side bores forward hard as “Hello Oskar” gets paranoid in the best, most accessible way before crossing alt-rock and pop better than the band ever would again with “Let You Down.”
It’s easy to see (with the benefit of hindsight) that while Our Lady Peace may have had its troubles at the time, they compensated for it very well by twisting the trouble into infectious paranoia and, as long as a listener either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the back story behind the songs, it’s easy to simply grit one’s teeth with the band and just enjoy the anger.
That said, looking back on Clumsy twenty years later, there’s no question that this album is a genuine classic – even if it may have looked doomed initially. Really, while Our Lady Peace would prove to enjoy some success with other singles following this release, the band would never again be able to touch the unique, conflicted beauty of Clumsy again. That isn’t to say the band wouldn’t TRY to come close, it’s just that each time forward would feel a bit like a canny re-enactment; the nerves and worry here feel real. This is the one where the band manages to turn its internal struggle and creative problems to real gold – while Our Lady Peace would enjoy success with other albums, they would look more like iron pyrite by comparison.