For a generation of people, Hootie & the Blowfish exists mostly as a funny band name to use for jokes, the Electric Boogaloo of musical groups. Aside from reuniting on The Late Show with David Letterman to play “Hold My Hand,” the band hasn’t really been culturally relevant of late. However, if you were around at the time of Cracked Rear View, Hootie & the Blowfish’s 1994 debut and the album that housed “Hold My Hand,” you know the album was inescapable. It’s the 16th best-selling album of all-time in the U.S.
Simply put: Cracked Rear View is one of the most popular albums in history. This may feel strange on a fundamental level, but it’s the truth. It’s also an odd little success story. Cracked Rear View was the band’s first major label release. It came out on July 5, 1994, but it was not providing the soundtrack for many belated Independence Day barbecues. The album would end up being the No. 1 selling album of a year, but that wouldn’t come until 1995. Its sales began with a simmer, but grew to a boil, eventually selling over 16 million copies. Cracked Rear View was the No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 on five separate occasions, before finally ceding for good to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, which replaced Hootie and friends in the zeitgeist en route to becoming the best-selling album of 1996.
So, we know Cracked Rear View moved units, and made Darius Rucker (who turns 49 today) and the other guys (with all due respect to the other guys) big-time stars. However, from a critical perspective, the album’s legacy is a little less gleaming. Cracked Rear View is generally viewed as being the epitome of middle-of-the-road rock music. Those being generous would call it inoffensive, others may call it bland. It’s probably most apt to call it genial. There is nothing revolutionary about Cracked Rear View.
This is not a statement of condemnation. The hits from this album, the ones that became singles, are pleasant enough. You probably remember a few of them; in addition to “Hold My Hand” there was “Let Her Cry,” “Only Wanna Be With You,” and so on. There is a catchiness to their music, and an acceptable tepidness to Rucker’s vocals and lyrics. He can emote when asked to do so without coming across as incapable, and the lyrics, even when striving for sentiment or melodrama, don’t tend to veer into preciousness or mawkishness. Plus, “Only Wanna Be With You” is goofy in a fun sort of way. These are the kind of songs you don’t mind hearing when you are shopping at a pharmacy. If you hear “Time” while waiting for somebody to open the case for razors, you’d think to yourself, “This is pretty alright.”
As for the rest of the album, the best thing to say is that they picked the right songs for the singles. The non-hits sound very similar to the hits, but not quite on the same level.
But the most amazing thing isn’t Hootie’s success with Cracked Rear View, or even that it took a while for the album to truly catch on. The most amazing thing is about how steeply the band fell off the map after that.
They followed up Cracked Rear View with Fairweather Johnson in 1996, getting in while the getting was still good. Naturally, since this was a followup to a super popular album, and because it was the ’90s and people still bought music, Fairweather Johnson debuted atop the Billboard 200. It did not having lasting success, though. It has sold just over 2.3 million copies, a far cry from what its predecessor sold. You can’t name a song off this album. No, seriously. You may think you’ve thought of one, but it’s actually off of Cracked Rear View. As for the album itself, can you imagine an album that sounds exactly like Cracked Rear View, but is less good? Then you can imagine Fairweather Johnson.
In 1998, Hootie & the Blowfish tried again with Musical Chairs. It reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200. After Musical Chairs, the guys decided to take it easy for a while, not releasing another album until 2003. This was a self-titled affair, perhaps an attempt to remind people that, you know, Hootie & the Blowfish existed. It did not work. In 2005 came Looking for Lucky. The album features a jumping dog on the cover, which makes this Hootie & the Blowfish’s personal Raditude. However, unlike Weezer, Hootie & the Blowfish had the decency to call it quits after this album. Looking for Lucky did not sell at all. According to Billboard article, it sold 128,000 units as of March 2009, and it’s hard to imagine sales jumping any higher after that.
As of now, that’s the story of Hootie & the Blowfish, a band that reached some of the highest highs possible in popular music, and then fell sharply into obscurity. What happened? The easiest explanation might be that the band followed a very specific formula in their music, which rewarded them richly, but didn’t set them up for the type of longevity that bands with more creativity or diversity or songwriting chops have experienced. How many versions of the same song can the public respond to?
Rucker, at least, has moved on to a successful solo career, but perhaps that Letterman reunion will be the start of something new for the band, even if it is just some performances revisiting the good old days. The heyday of Cracked Rear View was 20 years ago. If there is a time for reminiscing for when the Dolphins made Rucker cry, it would be now.