"Do you really, really wanna do this now?" Joe Elliott asks at the outset of Def Leppard's self-titled 2015 release.
My answer? Hell yeah. I've been waiting nearly 30 years for a worthy follow-up to Hysteria, and it sounds to all intents and purposes like this is it. That's not to say that The Leps' other releases between then and now didn't have their share of highlights, but - with the exception of the fantastic cover album Yeah! (2006) - they haven't put all the parts together in a single release since then.
That changed with this fall's eponymous outing, which guitarist Phil Collen has called "probably the most diverse thing we've ever done." Full disclosure Part 1: I don't write many music reviews (this is the first one on this blog). Full disclosure Part 2: I've been a Def Leppard fan since I first heard Rock Brigade on the radio in 1980, and the only published music review I have written was of a DL concert earlier this year.
The Leps didn't play any songs from the new CD at that show, and it had been so long (seven years) since they'd put out an album of all-new material, they caught me napping and sneaked this one by me, releasing it in October when I wasn't paying attention.
This album accomplishes something unique: It manages to be derivative and entirely original at the same time. That might seem like a cut, but it's not. Only a band with this level of expertise and breadth of influences could manage to acknowledge so many of them and still sound fresh 35 years into their recording career. No, this won't rocket to the top of the charts the way Hysteria did back in '86 (pun intended) - musical tastes have changed too much. And I'm not going to go as far as to say it's a match for that classic CD, but it comes a lot closer than anyone had a right to expect.
Bands often go through a three-album "peak" during their careers. The Beatles had an arc of Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. Queen had A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races and News of the World. (I mention those particular bands in part because their influence is apparent on this album.) For Def Leppard, it was High 'N' Dry, Pyromania and Hysteria - three releases produced by Mutt Lange.
(Fun exercise: Take a listen to Honey I'm Home by Lange's then-wife, Shania Twain, and tell me it doesn't sound like countrified Def Leppard.)
To climb back close to that level at this stage in their career is quite an accomplishment, and they've done it by paying tribute to both their influences and their own history. The album opener, Let's Go, was obviously written to be a concert opener, as well. With lyrics like "welcome to the carnival, welcome to the party, welcome to the edge of your seat," it of reintroduces the band to its audience in much the same way KISS reintroduced itself with the tune Psycho Circus 17 years ago (has it really been that long?).
Let's Go sounds familiar right out of the blocks. It starts off like the intro to Let's Get Rocked (Adrenalize, 1992), morphs into a riff reminiscent of Pour Some Sugar On Me (Hysteria, 1987) then takes off in a different and thoroughly satisfying vein altogether. The band's fondness for Queen, which has surfaced at various points throughout their career, appears for the first time in this track, the album's first single: I could almost swear that's Brian May on parts of that guitar solo.
The album's second track, Dangerous, is reminiscent of Promises, one of the two best tracks (with Paper Sun) off 1999's Euphoria, spiced with a dose of Hysteria-era styling. It doesn't quite live up to Promises, but it's not a pale imitation, either.
It's the third track, though, that seems the most familiar of any on the album. Try singing the lyrics to Queen's 1980 megahit Another One Bites the Dust along with the music to DL's Man Enough. It doesn't quite work, but it's close, and the fact that both tunes are built around pounding bass lines makes them seem even more similar. In all, Queen's heavy bass-funk era is my least favorite, but even with that said, I found myself enjoying this tune. It works the same way DL's take on Rock On worked on Yeah!
We Belong, the fourth track, is a lighter-raising ballad along the lines of Hysteria that, again, doesn't quite live up to that tune - but not much does. It's also fun to hear different members of the band take turn on vocals, giving Elliott a break. As Phil Collen proved on a dynamite cover of Rod Stewart's Stay With Me (Yeah!), he has the chops to carry off lead vocals.
The next three cuts - Invincible, Sea of Love and Energized - all hold their own. I liked the first of the three out of the gate, and the other two grew on me with repeated listening (this is the first album in years that I've enjoyed enough to keep on continuous iPod repeat for more than a day). Sea of Love particularly has quite a kick, but it offers an inverted song structure: The verses rock hard, while the chorus chills out a bit. This put me off initially, but I got to like it as time went on.
The second half of the album is, if anything, stronger than the first. At 14 tunes, it's actually two songs longer than Hysteria, although its running time is about 8 minutes shorter because the cuts are more compact.
All Time High features a rousing chorus that sounds like something out of the Pyromania/Hysteria era. It's followed by Battle of My Own, which slithers along through the sonic Bayou like a gator on the prowl. One of the album's best cuts, it's also one of six that founding member and bassist Rick Savage had a hand in writing. (Interestingly, that collection doesn't include the bass-heavy Man Enough.) Each of the six is among the album's standouts.
If you can get past the opening lyrics ("I'm not well, I'm mad as hell. Come over here, I'll ring your bell"), Broke and Brokenhearted really rocks, with a mid-section jam that keeps it humming along through a charged-up, fast-paced 3-plus minutes.
Forever Young is probably the only song on the album that I tend to skip past. I can't tell you exactly why; it just didn't quite work for me.
The last three songs, however, more than make up for any deficiency there. The acoustic strummer Last Dance (a tune Savage wrote solo) sounds like something the Eagles might have left of The Long Run and reminds me a bit of Orleans' Dance With Me.
Wings of An Angel sounds the closer to High 'N' Dry-era DL than anything else here, and stacks up well against cuts from that classic release.
But it might be argued (and I will contend) that the band saved the best for last with Blind Faith, which veers from intense acoustics to Beatlesque bridge to bombastic rock near the end. In that sense, purely on structure, it's built like a condensed Bohemian Rhapsody. The Beatlesque interlude sounds like something straight out of Strawberry Fields Forever and is, fittingly, introduced by the phrase "follow you down" - a takeoff on "let me take you down?" Perhaps.
If you think I'm overreaching with the Queen comparisons simply because I count both bands among my all-time top 5, I'll defer to Elliott, who made the comparison himself in an interview: "Every single aspect of anything we've ever wanted to put out - acoustic, heavy, soft, slow, fast - it's there. That's why we call it 'Def Leppard,' because, just like Queen were, we're capable of coming up with vastly different kinds of songs."
Bands routinely talk up their latest releases as the best thing they've ever done, and they're almost always full of hot air. But while Def Leppard-the album may not be Hysteria or Queen's A Day at the Races, it's as close as anyone's come in a long time.