The Goo Goo Dolls have embraced middle age. The days of raucous guitar sounds and danger lurking in the grooves were abandoned long ago. For detractors, Goo Goo Dolls became that most holy of abominations—the corporate rock machine—more than two decades ago. The hits started in 1995 and along with that, an apparent desire to keep the indoor pool heated and the orthodontist bills paid. No sane person could begrudge a band for having commercial success or for capitalizing on its shared talents. But there’s a certain kind of fan—and this writer is one of them—who misses the days when Goo Goo Dolls albums were touched by human hands.

There’s a sterility, a sense of decidedly extra-human perfection that pervades the cuts on Boxes. There’s nothing wrong with opener “Over and Over” from a musical standpoint. Its verses and choruses arrive on time. The melodic rising and falling action is guaranteed to get audiences clapping along. It’s safe enough that a mom could listen to it. Coffee chains and malls could play it. But by the halfway point, one wonders whether the album was a mind control experiment. The album lacks any authentic sense of artistry. Whatever’s going on here, it can’t be good for us.

“Souls in the Machine” fares better. There’s a hint of sincerity in the acoustic guitar strums and lyrics about falling victim to the big time. It’s ironic that a song about having one’s soul sucked out by the harsh, cruel world relies heavily on machines to align its beats and create an atmosphere that stands in for good old fashioned writing. In the end, this is music for the megachurch, not the dive bar. It makes one want to wince at how “rock” music has slid this far into the hard drive. Is ENCOM behind this travesty?

Following “Souls,” there’s a barrage of numbers that run the gamut from ballad-ish drivel (“Flood,” with more mechanical references to hearts and machines), “Boxes” and “So Alive,” which sounds suspiciously close to what you’d expect a machine would claim while trying to convince you that it’s human. That goes right down to its platitudes about living life to its fullest.

One might shake their head and hope it’s all been an elaborate fiction. Maybe the Goos have been kidnapped by a malevolent dictator who wants to hijack rock ‘n’ roll audiences and turn music lovers into mindless drones. “Soon,” the dictator cackles backstage, “the world will be mine!”

The audience eats the music up because, hey, it’s the Goo Goo Dolls. Not the old Dolls but the guys who kind of sound like Mumford & Sons. There’s a beat. Dance to it. The music goes down a storm because how could it not when you’re slowly being transformed into a robot? Then, at the last minute, Johnny and the gang launch into a real rock ‘n’ roll song and set all the mind control slaves free. The new tune, an original, becomes a medley of “Baba O’ Riley,” “Rock & Roll All Nite” and Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” The crowd, now more human than before, goes wild.

That moment never comes. “Long Way Home,” which closes out the whole shebang, sounds just as contrived as the others. There’s no ripping away of the mask. This is the real band now. Ones and zeroes to infinity and beyond.

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