“I think it would be fair to say if the band was collectively known as Stella, then this record would indicate the reality that Stella had indeed got her groove back.” states Ed Robertson of Toronto’s Barenaked Ladies. After 27 years together, over 14 million albums sold, and multiple Juno Awards and Grammy nominations, Silverball, the cerebral band’s fourteenth album finds the long-standing partnership of Ed Robertson (guitar, vocals), Jim Creeggan (bass, vocals), Kevin Hearn (keyboard, guitar, vocals) and Tyler Stewart (drums, vocals) firing on all cylinders.
The album’s graying protagonist is battered and bruised by life, but as the opening song, “Get Back Up,” indicates, he keeps lifting himself off the campus, Rocky-like, to deliver a flurry of counterpunches, along with a wisecrack or two. But there’s an underlying poignancy to Silverball as well. This is a mature album containing rock & roll songs repurposed to portray resiliency in midlife.
The boxing metaphors come fast and furious in “Get Back Up”; indeed, at one point Robertson wryly rhymes “Muhammed Ali” with “boxing imagery.” “I was writing that song with Kevin Griffin of Better Than Ezra, an old friend and collaborator,” Ed explains. “I also love that line in the first verse: ‘I’m not gonna be the next big thing/But I’m getting fitted for a new brass ring.’ In other words, I’m not reaching for a brass ring, I’m just having one made.”
“This is the first record since our debut Gordon that was written with no hand-wringing, second-guessing, insecurity or self-doubt,” Robertson asserts. “As we got ready to make the record, I was thinkin’, man, this is what I get to do: I try to process some of the stuff I’ve gone through and am going through and write songs about it. I play them for the guys I’ve played with for 27 years, and they call me back and go, ‘Dude, these fucking songs are awesome—we can’t wait to make this record.’ I had an overwhelming feeling of confidence and gratitude heading into it.”
“My goal has always been to write things that don’t sound awkward,” Robertson says of his approach to writing lyrics. “To find parts of conversation that roll off the tongue, that have meaning and that people can identify with. For me, the ultimate goal in trying to write a song is to get those phrases to just fly by, to fit in the rhythm of the song. So if I’m futzing around too much with grammar or rhyme, I know that it’s not the right line; I need to find a way to say it that sounds like conversation.”
Once the material was set, BNL wasted no time deciding on a producer, turning to their longtime friend Gavin Brown (The Tragically Hip, Metric), who had helmed their previous project, 2013 Grinning Streak. “We had so much fun making the last record—it felt great and worked well for the dynamic of the band,” Robertson explains. “So we decided to go back in with Gavin and his team and work back home in Toronto. And it was absolutely the right move.”
Ed recounts the process: “We started the record in December thinking we might get beds done for three or four songs before the Christmas break. Instead we got 13 beds done, and by the end of January we had all but completed the record. So everything just seemed to go insanely fast. There was a confidence in the band and a boldness to just go for it. We’ve made so many records at this point that we know when something is working. We trust Gavin in that way.
One can sense what this album is about—and how Robertson appropriates and recontextualizes familiar phrases—merely by looking at the song titles: “Matter of Time,” “Duct Tape Heart,” “Toe to Toe,” “Piece of Cake,” and the lead single, “Say What You Want.” Ed comments, “Say What You Want is a celebration of letting go. It's about feeling confident, and realizing that you can't control what other people do or say, you can only control how you react to it. It's a very triumphant song for me.”
“Duct Tape Heart,” is another Robertson/Griffin collaboration. “I love the imagery of a MacGyvered heart—a heart that is taped back up, but by virtue of being duct-taped back up, it’s rock-solid,” Ed notes (no pun intended).
The title track references Robertson’s obsession with pinball; he’s been collecting and refurbishing vintage machines since 1998. Silverball was an attempt to put another song out there so that ‘Pinball Wizard’ wasn’t the only song about pinball in the world,” Robertson jokes. “I didn’t really see the appeal of writing a pinball song until I started to think about it as a metaphor for a relationship—for this notion of an intricately connected machine where you literally push its buttons—and it started to make sense in describing a relationship. If you’re engaging with a person and you know what you’re doing, you light everything up and take it to the next level; that’s the metaphor. Gavin noted that Silverball should be the name of the record. It’s just such a cool word; it’s nostalgic and evocative.”
The album’s most emotionally direct song is its climactic closer, “Tired Of Fighting With You,” written and sung by Hearn. “That song is particularly poignant,” Roberson says. “Kevin’s cancer came back, and he wrote that song in the midst of everything he was dealing with. It’s a beautiful song—a heartbreaking song. It’s so perfect. It gives you a little insight into how heavy a track that is. And the beauty of that song is that it works on whatever level you take it on.”
In Robertson’s view, Silverball has already attained a lofty status in the band’s canon, for reasons that are fundamental and enduring. “I think the strength of this record is the band playing together,” he says. “We’re pushing in new directions—as always, I think—but it’s still unmistakably these four guys playing together, and that’s what I’m most proud of. I put the record on and it doesn’t sound like anything we’ve ever done before, and yet it is unmistakably the new Barenaked Ladies record. We made it quickly and effortlessly, and I think it’s a great showcase of what this band is capable of.”