In October of 1993, the Canadian pop-folk(ish) band Crash Test Dummies released their second album, God Shuffled His Feet. It would be their best-selling record in their discography, and it was coming at an interesting time in music history. While alternative rock was in full flower at this moment, the Dummies’ sound was not really akin to the hard rock shapes being thrown by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, or Alice In Chains.
And actually, the sound was much more reminiscent of the previous decade. Specifically, God Shuffled His Feet has a feel that hews closely to Little Creatures-era Talking Heads. This is not entirely by accident. Vocalist Brad Roberts’ insanely deep tone sounds nothing like the nervous energy of David Byrne, but the way Roberts’ and Ellen Reid’s voices intertwine is close to how Byrne and Tina Weymouth harmonized. Both bands added influences outside of the rock sphere (at that time). The Heads famously flirted with Latin rhythms, while the Dummies often added a girdle of Celtic folk to their efforts. It might not hit you in immediate recollection, but if you go back and check out their first two albums, you’ll hear it. To seal the deal, the album was produced by Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison.
Another similarity between the bands is a fascination for the strange and outcast. On God Shuffled His Feet you get a song called “How Does A Duck Know,” which is about as far from the mournful angst of the times as one could get. There’s also a song that, I think, advocates the benefits of living in a nursing home being “Afternoons & Coffeespoons.” And also the record features hit misfit meditation “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” a song that would be a boon for the band’s career and a millstone around its neck all at once. The songs can get surprisingly deep if you listen hard enough to them.
A case in point is the track “Swimming In Your Ocean.” You would be forgiven if you didn’t get past the very purple wordplay to see that it is a sex song. Especially at this time in pop, sex was pretty much unveiled and in your face with all the boot-knockin’, uglies bumpin’, and the up and down of the licking occurring. The lyrics to “Swimming In Your Ocean” could, to the naive, go straight over one’s head:
When I’m swimming in
When I’m swimming in your ocean
Floating aloft on creams
An scented lotions
I can get pretty side-tracked
I hope you’ll understand
If you actually think about the lyrics, especially toward the end when Roberts sings, “I wonder if my seed will find purchase in your soil” you’ve probably caught on. But there’s still another layer to this song that goes even deeper. Yes, it is about sex, but it is also about a damaged relationship. The protagonist sings that while he is involved in this most intimate of communions, his mind is lost on thoughts of “tornadoes and trainwrecks,” or “if there’s life on other planets.” His body is into it, but his head — and perhaps his heart — is not. When we get to that last verse about wondering if he has impregnated his lover, is this something he actually wants to happen? It’s hard to tell.
The music of the track is probably one of the best on the record. It has a synth sheen to it, but it is not a synth-driven song. It is incredibly polished to a spit-shine, and the chorus does everything you could hope a chorus would do. You’ll suddenly find yourself singing along to euphemisms about penetration, and probably do so unaware that that’s what you’re vocalizing about. That you’re equally unaware that the words hold this secondary ambiguity is a pretty neat trick if you stop to consider it.
The Crash Test Dummies continued on and, in some configuration, still exists. An album was in the midst of being written as late as 2012, but was up in the air according to Roberts. They never hit the same heights on the charts as they did with “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” or with the album from which it came. They had a small bit of notoriety with 1996’s A Worm’s Life, but that’s mostly because the lead single was called “He Liked To Feel It.” I’ve never actually bothered to figure out the subtext there.