Michael Hann

Nickelback may not be cool but they are very good at what they do

Plus: the thrilling chaos of Cardinals – catch them now, while it still only costs a fiver, and you can see the whites of their eyes

Expert ballad-mongers: Nickelback at the O2. Image: Timothy Hiehle / @thiehle

In May 2013, Rolling Stone polled its readers in an attempt to discover which band might be crowned the worst of the 1990s. The winners – or losers, depending on how you look at it – were Creed, trailed in second place by Nickelback. Eleven years on and Creed appear to have turned that status around, in America at least – Vanity Fair, Vice and Slate have noticed that they have, whisper it, become cool. And Nickelback? Well, no one’s claiming coolness for them: last year they released a documentary called Hate to Love: Nickelback, a recognition of the fact that, outside their fanbase, they are usually mentioned only as a punchline.

They can afford to laugh about it because their fanbase has turned out to be large enough to make them very successful – they’ve spent 20 years filling arenas. Creed, on the other hand, had to fall apart and disappear before they were allowed their come-back. Both bands had emerged from the musical hellscape known as ‘post-grunge’, in which bands shouted loudly about feeling unhappy. It was an attempt to resurrect a model perfected by Nirvana – with few doing it anywhere near as well. But Nickelback realised the traps of that, and quickly became a jack-of-all-trades hard-rock band, offering a little bit of everything to everyone.

At the O2 their crowd encompassed older men in leather, young women looking for a party and everyone in between. To my mild surprise, I noticed a middle-aged lesbian couple singing the ballad ‘Photograph’ to each other. And hearing the songs one after another it was very easy to appreciate the craftsmanship in them: they are constructed to hit pleasure point after pleasure point. Singer and songwriter Chad Kroeger – who, in the documentary, has the air of a man keeping a very tight leash on something explosive inside him – would have thrived in some hard-rock Brill Building, because he really can write a song in any style.

Churning modern metal? That was the opener, ‘San Quentin’. The one that sounded like it was made to be played in strip clubs? That would have been ‘Figured You Out’ (‘I like your pants around your feet/ And I like the dirt that’s on your knees’). ‘This Afternoon’ was the one that sounded a bit like it was meant for country radio with a big phones-in-the-air chorus. Black Sabbathy grooves? That was the closer ‘Burn It To the Ground’. But at the heart of it all were the ballads – even the hits ‘How You Remind Me’ and ‘Rockstar’ conceded precedence to the ballads. The ballads are why Nickelback are still huge, and Kroeger is expert at targeting nostalgia with a scientifically perfect balance of celebration and regret – not just on ‘Photograph’, but on ‘Those Days’ from the new album they were promoting.

If they were a pop group, Nickelback’s consummate professionalism and magpie approach to styles would be celebrated. But this is rock music, and the complaints about them have always been about their inauthenticity. They’re not strictly my bag, but I suspect their bank accounts are real enough.

‘This bone you keep mentioning, can you dig a little deeper?’

Nevertheless, it’s still more exciting watching a group trying to form their identity rather than one that has long since realised its purpose on this planet. Cardinals, from Cork, are one such. The singer from Fontaines D.C. has called them his favourite new band. In Brixton they were a sometimes confounding racket. Their singles ‘Nineteen’ and ‘Unreal’ made them sound like Oasis. They looked about 12 years old. One fella just sat on a barstool on stage. It turned out he would later play accordion. There was an identity here. Big, pummelling rock would give way to mood pieces – on ‘Roseland’ and ‘If I Could Make You Care’ – that spun off into other directions entirely. There was the thrilling sense that it all might fall apart into chaos, not least because they were playing at a volume that felt very physical – the thump in the sternum from the kick drum, the sense that a power chord was creating a wave of air pressure.

Cardinals haven’t yet fully worked out their identity, but they have a questing sense about them. They have ideas – whether or not these seem reasonable. The band, aesthetically, musically, should not have an accordionist. But who can begrudge them such a delightfully unnecessary addition to the line-up? The chaos of the Cardinals flows from these explorations rather than from them being too mashed to stand up. Bigger rooms await. Catch them now, while it still only costs a fiver, and you can see the whites of their eyes.