It’s interesting to look back at the career arc that Nate Ruess had in the decade following the release of The Format’s Dog Problems in July 2006. He has gone from fronting one of the great “should’ve been huge” bands of the decade to actually fronting one of the biggest bands of the 2010s (or at least the calendar year of 2012).
But when he, at long last, issued the solo album that his career seemed to have been building towards for all this time, it received a modest reception and none of its singles set the world on fire (pun intended). Grand Romantic is a decent album, but it and the two Fun. records don’t hold a candle to Dog Problems, the best thing that Ruess has ever had his name on.
Dog Problems was released following a disarray at The Format’s record label following their debut album Interventions + Lullabies, a solid collection of hooky tunes that displayed the songwriting genius of Ruess and his musical partner Sam Means. The album had performed well, but not up to Elektra Records’ expectations. The band saw themselves shifted to Elektra’s sister label Atlantic, who wanted the band to explore a more commercial sound and promptly dropped them following the release of the Snails EP and Ruess and Means formed their own label to issue their next album.
Dog Problems’ lead single “The Compromise” reflects the band’s situation. It’s just the kind of upbeat power pop that Atlantic was likely looking for, but with scathing lyrics about fame and record deals. Aside from “The Compromise”, most of Dog Problems is about a series of relationships, breakups and one night stands.
It’s unclear how much of the record was based off the end of Nate Ruess’ own romantic relationship before the album’s release, but certainly quite a bit of it was. Several of the songs echo one another and are filled with similar details, but others like “Oceans” are clearly about someone else who broke Nate’s heart by moving away as opposed to cheating on him.
Despite this, Ruess never once sounds like a self-absorbed dude who’s airing his dirty laundry or whining about his shitty love life. The narrator in most of the songs on Dog Problems comes off as both hurt and flawed, and it seems like most of shit luck comes from his own faults. The record’s lyrics are often dour and desperate, but are expertly composed and exceptionally witty, often at the expense of the narrator. At its best moments, the record captures the hurt, conflicted feelings that come with the end of a relationship, no matter how fleeting it is.
“She Doesn’t Get It” is about a series of epiphanies during a one-night stand: The narrator is unimpressed by the woman that he has taken home (“I’ve read every word you’ve said from a poster of a cat/four books look across your sofa/I thought your coffee table was more clever than that”), but he suddenly comes to the realization that he has become emotionally invested in someone that he’s known for only hours – he “falls in love too quickly” and winds up “the only one who got burned” once it was over.
The title track, the album’s centerpiece, is where we find Ruess at his most emotionally naked. The song’s title comes from a plan he had with a girlfriend whom he had an on-off relationship with: every time they broke up and got back together, they bought a dog. “Dog Problems” goes the most into the end of his relationship, the causes for it and the pain he felt at its end and is one of the most stirring breakup songs of the 2000s. The lyrics are a flurry of offbeat imagery evoking the narrator’s heartbreak, and the emotional quality of its verses are punctuated by the lack of a chorus. The narrator – and perhaps Ruess himself – admits to “finding flaws in everyone” (which hearkens back to his nitpicking nature of the girl in “She Doesn’t Get It”) that isn’t his ex-girlfriend as he mourns the loss of a relationship that meant the world to him.
Fans of Fun’s Some Nights will notice early inklings of that record’s aesthetic on “Dog Problems” and especially “I’m Actual”, but on the whole, the record is much less grandiose than the music than the music that Ruess finally became famous for. Instead, much of the record is high energy power pop that’s sonic quality is brought out by production work from Redd Kross bassist Steven McDonald that draws attention to Ruess’ expressive voice and the band’s well-crafted lyrics.
Upon its release in July 2006, Dog Problems experienced the same reception that Interventions + Lullabies had: positive reviews and decent but underwhelming sales. The album didn’t get much in the way of radio airplay – alternative stations didn’t to know what to do with a band that sounded like the Format in 2006 – but found patronage in the music video channel Fuse, which frequently played the videos for “Dog Problems”, “She Doesn’t Get It” and “The Compromise” well into 2007. The band had a cult following who enjoyed the record and their live shows, but the lack of commercial success couldn’t have been a morale booster.
The band began work on a third album in 2007, but ultimately announced their breakup in February 2008. Nate Ruess subsequently formed Fun with Steel Train frontman Jack Antonoff and Anathallo keyboardist Andrew Dost.
Most of the songs on Aim and Ignite , Fun’s first album, root from the aborted sessions for The Format’s third album and Means has songwriting credit throughout the album. While Aim and Ignite feels like a spiritual successor to Dog Problems, the band’s next album Some Nights is a whole different animal with a more bombastic sound that made Nate Ruess the chart topping musician that he had long deserved to be. In contrast, Sam Means took a more low profile route, forming the band Destry with Straylight Run members Shaun Cooper and Michelle DaRosa, which released two solid albums before falling inactive due to Cooper’s commitments to Taking Back Sunday.
Even though both Means and Ruess have made good music since The Format’s split, they have never made an album as great as Dog Problems, one of the best power pop records of the 2000s and a towering statement of 21st century love and heartbreak.