The Lowdown: As side effects of poptimism go, the retrospective mea culpa is relatively innocuous and even beneficial. There’s something liberating about finding new critical and cultural worth in records that were once universally dismissed. Writing for Esquire earlier this year, critic and former MTV VJ Dave Holmes performed this exercise on one of the easiest targets of the ’90s: Hootie & the Blowfish, whose ubiquitous debut album, Cracked Rear View, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2019. This reappraisal, in which Holmes apologizes for the snark and concludes that “Hootie and the Blowfish deserve an apology and another earnest listen,” seemed to knock something loose; soon, critics such as The New York Times’ John Caramanica devoted 2,500 words in support of the thesis that “at its peak, Hootie & the Blowfish was a genuinely excellent band.”
The attention came at an ideal time for the Columbia, SC, foursome; in addition to embarking on a string of sold-out tour dates with fellow ’90s journeymen Barenaked Ladies, Hootie and the Blowfish were also preparing their first studio album in 14 years, one now set up for success by both nostalgia (from fans) and open-mindedness (from skeptics). That record, Imperfect Circle, arrives this week, and unfortunately gives us the chance to explore another facet of poptimism: its limits.
The Good: Holmes and the rest of his fellow Hootie apologists will find at least some measure of vindication in the music of Imperfect Circle. Despite not approaching the highs of the band’s 1994-2000 output, the record still welcomes fans with moments of nostalgic enjoyment that play to the group’s known strengths. Chiefly, the record provides a showcase for the unaging baritone of Darius Rucker, whose voice remains undiminished a quarter century after it first turned heads.
Rucker’s pipes are put to best use during the record’s quieter moments; on tracks like “Wildfire Love” and “Half a Day Ahead”, he offers mature meditations on everything from the realities of aging to the emotional endurance required to maintain a lasting relationship. These qualities come out most forcefully on the album’s closer; “Change” finds Rucker looking both backwards and forwards and taking a moment to internalize the old adage about the only constant being (you guessed it) change. The track positions itself as a bittersweet bookend to Cracked Rear View’s “Time” and becomes one of the album’s highlights in the process.
The Bad: Outside of those momentary standouts, there aren’t many songs on Imperfect Circle to fully justify the album’s existence, at least from an artistic standpoint. Though it would be unrealistic to expect a full-scale reinvention on the band’s first record since 2005, it’s nevertheless frustrating to slog through a middle section filled with unchallenging bar rock that rarely vary from the band’s patented mid-tempo jams. It’s even worse that most of Imperfect Circle doubles as the soundtrack for a feature-length Cialis commercial. From “Not Tonight” until “Why”, the band fire off five blandly interchangeable odes to boner-pill romance that make Blessid Union of Souls’ “Hey Leonardo” seem edgy by comparison; if you isolated these songs on an EP and gave it away with every sale of a Tommy Bahama shirt, you’d have a platinum record on your hands.
The results aren’t much better when Hootie et. al. make attempts at topicality; given the direness of our current sociopolitical moment, the lame “love is the answer!” conclusions drawn by songs like “Hold On” and “Turn It Up” feel like the most naive relics of the band’s relatively carefree ’90s heyday. All of these knocks could be mitigated by adventurous arrangements, but producers Frank Rogers and Jeff Trott seem content to relegate the record’s interesting sonic moments (the horns on “Turn It Up”, the ukulele on “We Are One”) to background anonymity.
The Verdict: Consider this on the record: when it comes to the music of Hootie & the Blowfish’s prime, the apologists are right. The band have plenty of genuinely great songs in their catalog, many of which were unfairly dismissed during an epidemic of critical too-cool-for-school-ness in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Those songs deserve a reassessment. However, those upward revisions don’t change the fact that the band’s comeback album falls well short of their loftiest recordings, content to mostly vamp its way through paint-by-numbers adult contemporary rather than indulge more complex instincts. Imperfect Circle will undoubtedly please diehards and nostalgists. However, the rest of us would be better off atoning for the snootiness of the past than abetting the blandness of the present.
Essential Tracks: “Wildfire Love”, “Half a Day Ahead”, and “Change”