Nickelback are not known for their insight, but Chad Kroeger's caterwauling claim that "we got no class, no taste" on "Burn It to the Ground," the second song on their sixth album, Dark Horse, is a slice of perceptive, precise self-examination. Nickelback are a gnarled, vulgar band reveling in their ignorance of the very notion of taste, lacking either the smarts or savvy to wallow in bad taste so they just get ugly, knocking out knuckle-dragging riffs that seem rarefied in comparison to their thick, boneheaded words. Of the two, the music is far less offensive, particularly on Dark Horse, where they work with the legendary producer Robert "Mutt" Lange, the sonic architect behind Back in Black and Pyromania, two of hard rock's towering monuments. Mutt Lange decides to give Nickelback a production caught somewhere between the two extremes of AC/DC and Def Leppard, pumping up some muscle on Nickelback's heaviest rockers and adding some color to their power ballads, suggesting some heretofore verboten suggestions of modernity in the form of electronic rhythms, even taking it to the extreme of adding drum loops to the surefire crossover hit "Gotta Be Somebody." Nickelback do manage to shed their leathery rock skin a couple of times, first with an arena-rocking "Burn It to the Ground" and then echoing Toby Keith's "Let's Talk About Us" on the white-boy rap pre-chorus for "Something in Your Mouth," but these are mere glimpses of something unpredictable; Dark Horse was constructed entirely from the group's standard templates of bleating power ballads and dulled hard rock.
These two sounds have been the group's trademark for a while now, ever since Kroeger started plumbing the depths of his shallow soul to spit out invective toward lovers and fathers on 2001's Silver Side Up, but stardom has stripped away all lingering angst, leaving behind slow songs about love and fast songs about partying, all designed to woo women he'll later hate. Underneath the housewife-hooking power ballads -- "I'd Come for You," "If Today Was Your Last Day" -- plus "Just to Get High," an ode to a fallen junkie friend that's part of the proud tradition that stretches back to at least Body Count's "The Winner Loses," Dark Horse seethes with ugly misogyny, as Kroeger trots out a parade of dirty little ladies in pretty pink thongs, porn stars, strippers, and sluts, all of whom are desired and despised for showing too much skin. Kroeger may claim that "S is for the simple need/E is for the ecstasy" in his middle-school chant "S.E.X.," but there is no joy in his carnality, just bleak veiled violence, and that nasty undercurrent undercuts his pleading lovesick ballads; he's either had his heart broken by those loose women, or he's singing to the good girl left at home while he's out on the town. This all turns Dark Horse into a murky, wearying listen, with the mood only lightening at the end of the record, when Kroeger and company take a break from carousing to kick back with bros and a bong for "This Afternoon" -- its strum-along choruses are a relief but so is its mellowness, as Kroeger seems calmer, relaxed, even friendly. Maybe it's because there were no women in the picture.