If you were looking for a single moment to sum up post-9/11 grunge rock, I’d steer you toward MTV’s 2002 Video Music Awards. If you were watching the 2002 VMAs, you would have seen Jimmy Fallon and Kirsten Dunst introduce two “of their favorite bands” for what the awards show deemed a battle of the bands: The Hives vs. The Vines.
I’ll let you be the judge of who won, but The Hives had a clear aesthetic edge. They dress in impeccable black suits with white ties. Behind them giant signs blare the message, “The Hives Are Law. You Are Crime.” And in the center of it all was Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, a Swede happy to twirl the mic and strut like Jagger and sing about his “main offender,” without exactly saying what that meant. The crowd of precious youths went crazy.
The Hives rode in on an early-2000s wave, carried by both the placement of their single “Hate to Say I Told You So” on the Spider-Man soundtrack and a garage rock revival that included them, The Vines, The Strokes, and The White Stripes. Two of those bands became era-defining icons. Another, The Vines, became a tragedy wrapped up in the complexities of mental illness.
The Hives, for their part, kept on keeping on, happy to keep issuing bold rock proclamations even when doing so began producing diminishing returns. Veni Vidi Vicious, their second album, was the breakthrough that became part of a cultural moment. Their third, Tyrannosaurus Hives, proved they could do it all over again. Chances are you don’t remember The Black and White Album or Lex Hives, which came out in 2012.
It’s been more than a decade since the band faded away, which never seemed very Hives-like. It’s a good thing they’ve come roaring back on The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons, a welcome return for a band that promises nothing more and nothing less than a good time. The album comes with its own half-baked mythology, filled with cryptic poems and gravedigging, as well as a promise from Almqvist that “there’s no maturity or anything like that bullshit, because who the fuck wants mature rock ’n’ roll?” On this, the album delivers.
The opening for any Hives album is crucial. Veni Vidi, after all, opened with “The Hives - Declare Guerre Nucleaire.” Randy Fitzsimmons opens on a similar high note, the perfectly Hivesian “Bogus Operandi.” The song’s music video tells more of a story than the song does, following the band as they get murdered in the Swedish countryside by a ghost and then as they get resurrected into The Hives.
Hearing Almqvist yell “I told ya, Jim Dandy / Bogus operandi” might not make any sense, but you’re not coming to a song like this to make sense. You’re coming to yell something clever and funny and to yell it loud, and the song delivers in spades.
Happy to be merry pranksters, on the next track The Hives offer a way out of any problem you can think of: “Trapdoor Solution.” “I dug a hole, I made a lid / And I’m excited like a little kid / It’s like a door, but in the floor,” Almqvist explains in the minute-long banger. “Trapdoor” best captures the energy of the garage rock moment, a clever storm of chaos that calls to mind The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl.”
“I was a star, baby, ever since the dawn of man,” Almqvist says on “Rigor Mortis Radio,” a preening song about how cool he is, accentuated with catchy handclaps and a nasaly chorus. Not all the songs stand out like this. A handful are perfectly adequate, if not completely memorable.
But The Hives find their pacing more times than not. The highlight of the second half comes in “Two Kinds of Trouble,” which briefly threatens to go deeper than Almqvist promised. “I was born smarter than most into this world of disarray,” he lets the listener know. He figured out the world and all its craziness when he was just 6 years old. What is this great wisdom? “Women, men / That’s two kinds of trouble.” With a tight guitar rhythm and a bouncy chorus, this trouble expands and expands: boats and planes, Norwegians and Danes, anything and everything. Pick your poison, The Hives are saying. They’ve already picked theirs.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.