Career Killers: “In Pursuit of Leisure” by Sugar Ray

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

Prince was right about a lot of things. It is easier 2 use the numeral “2” instead of the words “too” or “to” (and U definitely save time using the letter “U” instead of the word “you”). Changing your name to an unpronounceable symbol can be an effective way of getting out of a record contract.

And he knew 1999 was going to be a party.

Many of the biggest artists that year were primarily about fun and brought the good times and vibes. Boy bands and pop princesses were starting to dominate the charts and airwaves, while Latino dance artists like Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez were exploding in popularity. Grunge was dead and upbeat rock groups like Smash Mouth, the Goo Goo Dolls, Barenaked Ladies and Third Eye Blind all had a banner year in 1999.

Arguably, none of those rock bands were as big that year as Sugar Ray.

In retrospect, it’s possible that Sugar Ray were always going to blow up. Formed as a hip-hop/heavy metal band, the band’s 1995 debut, Lemonade and Brownies, was co-produced by two future stars: movie director McG and Limp Bizkit’s DJ Lethal. Their debut album didn’t do huge numbers, but it managed to get some buzz. Had they stayed the course, Sugar Ray could have become nu metal royalty during the early 00s alongside the likes of Korn, Kid Rock, Linkin Park and the aforementioned Limp Bizkit.

But then came the band’s second album, 1997’s Floored — or more specifically its lead single, “Fly.” Upbeat and infectious (the version they released that features Jamaican DJ and dancehall singer Super Cat has a fantastic call-and-response structure that makes it a great concert and karaoke song), “Fly” was made for radio and MTV and sounded nothing like Sugar Ray’s other stuff. When it became a hit, many people (myself included) thought they were destined to be one-hit wonders.

Turns out, so did the band. Lead singer Mark McGrath has always maintained that all he had ever wanted was to be a one-hit wonder. After all, most people don’t even get that. And if you’re lucky enough to get that one hit, you can live off of it for the rest of your life — and maybe even parlay it into a career touring on the nostalgia circuit.

But that didn’t mean the band was content to join the likes of Semisonic, Deep Blue Something or Marcy Playground. “A lot of people were calling us ‘one hit wonders’ and to enjoy our fifteen minutes,” McGrath said in 1999. “We were enjoying our success because it was an incredible journey we went through, but there was a time when we decided that we wanted to maintain it.”

So they embraced their black sheep hit and reinvented themselves as a feel-good party band (as long as you didn’t call them “Sugar Gay“). They abandoned nu metal and embraced mainstream pop rock group, releasing the cheekily-titled album 14:59 in 1999. Their singles and music videos relied on the same tried-and-true formula: killer hooks that will stay in your head for days, plenty of shots of the band and others having fun and lots of closeups of McGrath’s handsome face.

It was a winning formula. 14:59 went triple platinum and spawned two Top Ten hits: “Every Morning” and “Someday” (another single, “Falls Apart,” hit #29). “Every Morning” and “Someday” both landed in the top 30 of Billboard’s year-end chart, making Sugar Ray the only rock band to manage that (The Backstreet Boys and TLC were the only others to have two songs in the top 30 that year).

The 90s came to an end, but the band kept the party going, releasing a self-titled album in 2001 that sounded pretty much like it’s predecessor. However, that album only managed to go gold and yielded one hit, the presciently titled “When It’s Over.”

Perhaps that served as a wake up call — a sign that the party was over and it was time to reinvent themselves. Otherwise, a quick look at the singles and album charts would have confirmed it. In 2002 and 2003, the biggest-selling acts were hip-hop and R&B artists, female pop stars, and post-grunge bands like Nickelback and Creed. Suffice to say, the music industry had changed considerably since Sugar Ray’s heyday.

For 2003’s In Pursuit of Leisure, the band was ready to reinvent itself— again. There were reports that they had hired the Neptunes to help move them in a more hip-hop direction, but that ended up not happening. Nevertheless, it was clear where there heads were at. “I think Madonna set the bar pretty high for changing yourself and metamorphosing and staying current,” McGrath told MTV. “And we’re in that position now. We’ve been in the same area for five years, so we’re gonna pull the trigger and do something different this time.”

It’s not entirely clear what that new direction ended up being. The album experiments with several different genres, but most of it just sounds like the previous two albums. For instance, the second single is a by-the-numbers cover of Joe Jackson’s classic “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” It’s fine as an album filler track (similar to their formulaic cover of Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra” from 14:59), but it’s a weak single and reinforces the notion that the band was out of ideas. Other album tracks like “Can’t Start,” “Photograph of You,” “In Through the Doggie Door” and “She’s Different” are completely forgettable and sound like they could have been on 14:59 or Sugar Ray had the band not had anything better to put on there.

When the band does try and experiment, the results are mixed, to say to least. For instance, the album cover showed band members in mariachi gear while walking on the beach. Did that mean they going to add some of those elements to its existing party rock sound? Not the worst idea — after all, mariachi tends to sound upbeat and fun, so it’s a natural transition for Sugar Ray to move from sounding like a keg party to a Cinco de Mayo celebration.

In that vein, opening track “Chasin’ You Around” has some horns in it while mostly sticking to the “classic” Sugar Ray sound. It’s a catchy song and probably could have been a fine lead single. Meanwhile, the third song on the album, “Heaven,” has a Spanish flavor to it and is probably the highlight of the record. I’m surprised neither of those songs were chosen as singles, since they probably showed the best balance of experimentation and consistency and are the most accessible tracks on the album.

They also try to go back to the reggae well on a couple of tracks: “Wherever We Are” and “56 Hope Rd.” The latter features none other than Shaggy, who was still a big name at this point, but was three years removed from his biggest hit. Both songs are forgettable, but the one featuring Shaggy is, arguably, the inferior one. Maybe the slightly- better “Wherever We Are” could have benefitted from his presence and become a strong album track rather than the forgettable filler that it is.

Instead, the band decided to lead things off with the hip-hop influenced “Mr. Bartender (It’s So Easy).” Featuring a guest rap from someone named “ProHoeZak” (I’ve never heard of him, but evidently, neither has Wikipedia, since he doesn’t have an entry), the song has a weak hook and seems overproduced — as if the electronic beats and effects are simply tacked on. It’s hardly the strongest song on the album and was not well-received, failing to even make the Billboard 100 (perhaps as a sign of the times, it did manage to hit #20 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary Chart).

But the biggest indictment of this album is that it just seems inessential — almost like they just put something out because they had to or because they wanted to keep the money rolling in. Despite that, In Pursuit of Leisure actually got pretty some good reviews at the time. Q Magazine called it “a measured and thoughtful set of intelligent pop tunes,” AllMusic proclaimed it was “another winning record” and Spin even praised its hooks, which is peculiar since there are very few good ones on this album. Rolling Stone, while giving it a mediocre overall review, nevertheless called it “extremely infectious.”

Maybe these critics were like Sugar Ray and wanted to keep the good times and vibes going. Otherewise, I found that Slant‘s review summed it up best: “The album is about as easy to swallow as your average episode of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: pleasant, inoffensive, and completely forgettable.”

However, that review missed the mark in one sense — Leno got good ratings. In Pursuit of Leisure flopped, selling a mere 135,000 copies according to McGrath — a fraction of its predecessor, Sugar Ray (which was, itself, somewhat of a disappointment). The album’s singles were similarly underwhelming, as both “Mr. Bartender” and “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” failed to make the Billboard 100.

“In 2003, the writing was on the wall for bands like Smash Mouth, Third Eye Blind, Everclear, Barenaked Ladies — bands in our fraternal mid-’90s modern-rock universe,” McGrath told Rolling Stone. “Radio was changing… We sold 135,000 copies, coming off a platinum-selling [sic] record in 2001. We thought, maybe we should stop and smell the flowers and see what else is out there for us.”

So that’s what they did. After wrapping up their tour for In Pursuit of Leisure, the band went on a sort of modified hiatus for the next six years. They still played the occasional show, and even released a greatest hits album in 2005, but band members prioritized other interests and activities. For instance, McGrath joined entertainment newsmagazine show Extra as co-host in 2004 before becoming a fixture on reality TV, competing in shows like Celebrity Apprentice, The Masked Singer and Celebrity Big Brother (he also cleaned up on the short-lived Rock & Roll Jeopardy!).

But like any good party, they couldn’t stay away forever. In 2009, they released Music for Cougars, despite McGrath’s surprisingly honest admission that “[o]bviously, there is not this huge demand to make a Sugar Ray record from the public.”

That album didn’t do particularly well, but that wasn’t the point anymore. Sugar Ray have long since embraced their role as a nostalgia act and have been a fixture on 90s package tours since. McGrath even started a couple, running the Under the Sun tour for several years and co-founding the Summerland tour with Everclear frontman Art Alexakis. “Nostalgia is the most precious commodity you could ever have,” McGrath told the AV Club. “Forget highlights in your hair, forget ‘Hammer pants,’ forget Smash Mouth. If you have a song that someone had life experiences to—I don’t care if it’s the ‘Macarena’ — it means a lot to somebody. And we had three or four of those, God bless the lord above.”

Those good feelings, evidently, don’t extend to In Pursuit of Leisure. Recent tour set lists have omitted the record completely, and the band’s YouTube page doesn’t have the actual music videos for the album’s two singles. I guess nostalgia only goes so far…