My introduction to Crash Test Dummies came on June 12, 1994 when I saw them open for Elvis Costello on his Brutal Youth tour. The extent of their exposure at that time was their sole hit, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” and, to a far lesser extent, “Superman’s Song” off of their debut album, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, which was released on this date, April 5, 1991.
Since then, Crash Test Dummies have become a bit of a cult-following type of outfit and I often feel that I’m a cult of one, since I talk to few people who recall them at all (oh, that “Mmm Mmm” song…), much less count themselves among fans. And at this point, even the term “band” is a bit inaccurate, as Brad Roberts is the sole remaining member of a group that debuted 26 years ago. But let’s back up.
Out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, CTD introduced themselves with a college radio-friendly folk-rock number, the aforementioned “Superman’s Song,” a reflection on the lack of humanity in modern-day society (the video plays it as an elegy for Superman, with fellow supers attending the funeral). The song starts with a solo cello intro and flows into a piano-and-strings arrangement that is unlike most of their work. As such, it’s an odd choice for a lead-off single, since it doesn’t give a real feel for the album – or, indeed, the band’s work overall. Ellen Reid (the last member to remain with Brad Roberts as a Crash Test Dummy until she unofficially retired in the new millennium) provides the piano and harmonizing backing vocals. It’s a great song, just not like any other in their oeuvre.
Overall, the album is more upbeat than its lead single, at times featuring a bit of a Celtic lilt to the music, courtesy of Ellen Reid and Benjamin Darvill. Though the lyrics on the record are more straightforward and less idiosyncratic than they would become on future releases, songs like “Comin’ Back Soon” hint at some of Brad’s whimsy with lines like, “I’ve all my wisdom teeth / Two up top and two beneath / And yet I recognize / My mouth says things that aren’t so wise…” The song goes on to sing the praises of his sweetheart, who has left him, and who wasn’t a very nice person to begin with.
Much of the album has a bucolic tilt to it, with tracks like “Here On Earth,” and, even more particularly, “The Country Life” extolling folksy wisdom and downhome sensibilities, crying the benefits of rural living over the sturm und drang of city life. “I would learn to ride on rodeo / I’ll wear shiny boots and a cowboy hat so that nobody’d ever know / We’d once been city folks who owned sporty cars and fancy homes…” The way he sings it and the accompanying music convince me he really believes it.
The Ghosts That Haunt Me is the most traditional album that the Dummies ever made. There’s nothing kitsch or overtly clever about it. Brad is just singing, and while his voice is richly baritone and utterly unmistakable, he isn’t forcing the depth and rumble that would characterize later albums. He wrote all of the songs on the album (with the exception of a cover of The Replacements‘ “Androgynous” and “Thick-Necked Man,” Ben Darvill’s tale of comeuppance) but he wrote them without guile or condescension, something that wouldn’t necessarily hold true on future releases.
I’ve been a big fan of Crash Test Dummies since I first saw them live (I went out the next day and bought both of the albums that were out at the time) though I can certainly understand why the appeal might not be universal. Too, it doesn’t really help that their breakthrough hit (and, thusly, one-hit wonder) was so off-kilter. I remember the first time I saw them and Brad changed the third verse of “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” to something about a kid keeping a tooth or tonsils in a jar. After the song ended, he said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I’ve been told it’s ill-advised to change up a verse in your one big hit, but then I’ve also been told that it’s ill-advised to release a single with no words in the title.”
That mentality, it seems to me, has sort of characterized the Brad Roberts approach. Every album takes on a different musical style – folk followed by pop followed by hard rock followed by electronica followed by country followed by… you get the picture. It hasn’t helped him commercially, but as a longtime fan, I appreciate the adventurous undertaking of each new release and love the fact that, while I never know just what to expect, I know that, at the root of things, it’s going to center on Brad’s voice and lyrics. And that’s what keeps me coming back.