REO Speedwagon, like so many '80s arena rock giants, got chopped up by the early 1990s alternative buzzsaw. Their 1990 album The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog, and a Chicken was their worst-performing release in more than a decade. After sticking with the band for two rollercoaster decades, Epic dropped them.
With no label, REO Speedwagon essentially started over in the early 1990s. After a hiatus during which guitarist Dave Amato toured with Cher and Richie Sambora, the band began taking gigs wherever they could get them. They went back to playing clubs and fairs, trying to win fans one show at a time the way they had in the early 1970s. It wasn't easy, and there were times when the future of the band was in serious doubt, but eventually it started to work.
Granted, they weren't so much adding new fans as they were reminding older ones they were still around. As singer Kevin Cronin put it in a 1996 interview with the Orange County Register, "The fans have always been there. They haven't gone away. It's more the music business establishment that wants to create an atmosphere where certain things are obsolete, so they can introduce new things."
But around this time the music business was also learning a new lesson about the power and quick turnaround of nostalgia. By 1995 when REO mounted a series of shows with Fleetwood Mac and Pat Benetar, it turned out to be one of the highest grossing tours of the year.
Capitalizing on this momentum, the band recorded a new set of songs with producer Greg Ladanyi (who'd produced albums by the likes of Jackson Browne, Don Henley, and The Church). Building the Bridge was released in July 1996 by Castle Records, a British label that made its name releasing compilations and reissues. That they were on such an obscure label seemed to irk Cronin, who remarked in the same 1996 interview, "...the industry I've supported for the past 25 years is now saying, 'You've had your chance, it's over.'"
Even so, the band learned some lessons from the disappointment of The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog, and a Chicken. For one, they kept everything in house, composing all the songs themselves with no outside help (with one notable exception). For another, they returned to a more organic, less polished sound. What they didn't do, however, was shy away from ballads. In interviews at the time, guitarist Dave Amato claimed to have encouraged the band to get back to their rocking roots. Either he was kidding himself or the band ignored him, because Building a Bridge is the most rock-starved album in the band's oeuvre. Only two of the tracks - both co-written by Amato - could be described as 100% uptempo, "Can't Stop Rockin'" and "She's Gonna Love Me."
"Can't Stop Rockin" is the opener, and though on first blush it seems like another in the band's long line of songs about perseverance, it's actually a touching autobiographical tale about Kevin Cronin's love of the Beatles, and the birth of his rock star ambitions. As he tells it, he was an awkward kid who "got my ass kicked up and own the halls of high school." But seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan changed his world, with their music giving him strength, solace, and something to strive for: "Everyone said, 'no, no, no' / I said 'yeah, yeah, yeah."
That pairs nicely with countryish closer "Ballad of the Illinois Opry." Written by an eighteen-year-old Cronin in the spring of 1969 to commemorate his first trip from his home in the Chicago suburbs to the Illinois capital city, the tune might be - chronologically - his first statement of musical purpose. After doing some sightseeing he spots the then newly-opened Illinois Country Opry (actually located in Petersburg, 25 miles northeast of Springfield), and vows ""It may be awhile be before I'm ready / But I'm gonna be up on that stage someday." The venue closed in 1978, just as Cronin and REO were beginning their commercial ascent, so he never fulfilled that particular ambition, though he certainly did so in spirit.
Another older song is "I Still Love You," a slick new arrangement of a song Cronin co-wrote with Stephen Stills, "Haven't We Lost Enough," which appeared in a ragged acoustic version on Crosby, Stills, and Nash's 1990 record Live It Up. Weirdly, this is the second time REO rearranged and renamed a Stills tune, the other being "Open Up" on 1973's Ridin' the Storm Out.
The title track - an optimistic gospel tune about the need for cooperation and unity - gained some degree of fame when President Bill Clinton adopted it for his 1996 reelection campaign, the theme of which was "build a bridge to the 21st century." It's not as fun a choice as his 1992 campaign song, Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop," but still a great honor for REO, and it led to them playing one of his inaugural balls.
The pleasant country rocker "When I Get Home" is somewhat marred by the icky repeated line, "when I get home / I know the first thing we're going to do / when I get home / I'm gonna turn my body loose on you." A similar thing happens with Bruce Hall's "After Tonight" and the line where Cronin sings about "anticipating the moment when I can make love with you again," (though honestly this is less egregious than Hall's uncharacteristically soppy musical arrangement). Both are reminders that REO made largely sexless music, and that it was probably better that way.
Overall, though, Building a Bridge is an admirable effort from a band seemingly comfortable just being themselves, which certainly can't be said of a lot REO's contemporaries who also put out new material in the 1990s (Foreigner, Styx).
After getting spurned by major labels, the sweet revenge would have been that Building a Bridge became a massive hit, but sadly that wasn't in the cards. It became the band's first album since R.E.O./T.W.O. not to chart. What the band had run into was that awful truth of older bands who are viewed as past their prime: Fans will still come hear the hits, but they aren't all that interested in brand new records, at least not enough to make any sort of significant sales impact.
In 1996 REO weren't yet ready to accept this. "We're not just a nostalgia act for the rest of our lives" Doughty told Tom Roland at The Tennesseean while promoting Building a Bridge. Of course he said this as the band were in the midst of a tour with Foreigner and Peter Frampton. A nostalgia act is exactly what the band had become, and would largely remain.