Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Def Leppard - Def Leppard [album review]

Released October 30th

Oddity: It's taken nearly 40 years since forming in 1977 for Def Leppard to release a self-titled album, with their newest release also marking their first since 1980's full-length debut On Through The Night to not be affiliated with a major label (the band continues to put out music on their most excellently named Bludgeon Riffola sub label). As the title suggests, Def Leppard marks a fairly back-to-basics sound approach for the band, or at least as back-to-basics as a band with their legendary reputation for meticulous recording production gets. Intact are the group's instantly identifiable layered background vocals, a head-spinning number of stacked guitar tracks, and an abundance of deeply infectious melodies that all result in their own hard rock "Wall of Sound". The album's 14 songs contain a mostly effective mixture of contemporary sensibilities, diversity, and comfortable nostalgia.

That latter quality is a little too evident, however, on opening song "Let's Go", which shamelessly resurrects the main guitar riff from "Pour Some Sugar On Me". Clearly, it's an intentional callback to one of the biggest songs from their heyday, but the similarities between the songs, at least during the verse sections, are so close it's downright distracting. You can add in brain-dead lyrics, a dreadful chorus, and guitars that are so in-your-face they overwhelm Joe Elliot's vocals and every other instrument (I believe that's the first time I've ever complained about guitars being mixed too loud anywhere). The song also drips with a transparent desperation for the arena-ready anthem to connect with fist-pumping audiences. All of these factors left me utterly deflated right out of the gate, wondering how the band responsible for what I consider to be some of the best rock songs of the 80s can be this badly off the mark. That worry was only emphasized by the fact that "Let's Go" was inexplicably chosen as Def Leppard's "mission statement", essentially, by being its first single. Thankfully, my reservations were quickly eased as only one other track on the rest of the album qualifies as an outright stinker - the overly poppy "Energized", which ironically is anything but.

Otherwise, the balance of Def Leppard delivers predominantly impressive results worthy of the songwriting pedigree established in the first half of the band's career. Topping the list of strong material is mid-tempo power ballad "We Belong", which is highlighted by the inspired idea to have every band member trade off lead vocal duties (in addition to Elliot there's bassist Rick Savage, drummer Rick Allen, and guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell). That "We Belong", with its well-worn verse and chorus structures, succeeds mightily in spite of its lack of originality points to the ever-fascinating and mysterious nature of music and what does and doesn't make a song work. I thought that perhaps the novelty factor of multiple lead vocalists and their varied singing styles (which all sound great here) might be obscuring more of the song's flaws, but a listen to an alternate mix of "We Belong" with just Elliot's lead vocals indicates that this is simply an instantly catchy and well-executed piece of music making. The excellent "Last Dance" follows in the same formulaic power ballad footsteps, wringing surprising emotional depth out of a song that would likely end up an uninspired throwaway in the hands of a less seasoned artist. Def Leppard also brings plenty of the heavy, too, with "Dangerous", "All Time High", "Broke 'N' Brokenhearted", and "Wings Of An Angel" further representing some of the finest material the band has put out in ages and pointing to a creative resurgence within their ranks. The group has never been shy about wearing their musical influences on their sleeve and there's numerous examples of that on Def Leppard, all of them memorable: they get their Queen on with the funky "Man Enough", an undeniable "Another One Bites The Dust" homage (containing the oddball - and probably sexist - lyrical refrain, "Are you man enough to be my girl?"), the Led Zeppelin-powered heavy acoustic rock of "Battle Of My Own", and the Beatles-influenced "Blind Faith", which admittedly meanders a bit in mellotron-laced psychedelic hell before erupting to life for a fitting album closer. "Broke 'N' Brokenhearted" also contains noticeable elements of glam rock during its verse sections.  

As a loyal Def Leppard fan of 32 years, it's been damn tough to hang in there with them for the past 20 or so as they put out one underwhelming album after another (before this release, I'd have to go back to 1996's overlooked Slang for their last noteworthy collection of new songs). There were also career low points (at least in my opinion) with a "Bohemian Rhapsody"/"We Are The Champions"-inspired atrocity titled "Kings Of The World" from 2011's Mirror Ball - Live And More release (listen to it here for proof) and a cringeworthy 2008 appearance on TV cheesefest Dancing With The Stars. 2015 finds Def Lep finally back on their game for their first album of new material in seven years that's bolstered by inspired songwriting and standout guitar work from both the perpetually shirtless Collen and a health-challenged Campbell, who's recently been battling Hodgkin's lymphoma. 

And can we just take a moment to reappreciate Allen and his one-armed drumming skills? It's been three decades now since the car injury that claimed his left arm occurred and it's easy to become rather complacent with what he does behind a drum kit, but I was struck again recently by what an incredible feat he's accomplished whilst explaining Def Leppard's history to a friend who grew up in China and wasn't aware of their story. Allen's booming drums, especially on "Dangerous", "All Time High", and "Battle Of My Own" don't go unnoticed.

Rating: B+

4 comments:

  1. Why the worship of Allen? The man is a wifebeater and lost his arm because he totaled his car driving drunk. Leppard has sucked since the 80s!

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    1. Huh? I wasn't defending the man's character, I was acknowledging his musical talent. I'm aware of the domestic abuse incident, but I've never heard about him being drunk when he had his accident and can't find any evidence anywhere online that he was.

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  2. As you know Drew, I was commissioned to draw Phil as a Christmas gift from his wife.In my correspondence with Helen Collen, she mentioned that Phil honestly believes that this is the band's strongest material since Hysteria. I personally believe it's even better than that.

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    1. I'm still listening to the album regularly and would probably rank it ahead of Slang now, so I'm with Phil. Better than Hysteria, though? Wow, that's high praise.

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