AC/DC: BALLBREAKER (1995)
1) Hard As A Rock; 2) Cover You In Oil; 3) The Furor; 4) Boogie Man; 5) The Honey Roll; 6) Burnin' Alive; 7) Hail Caesar; 8) Love Bomb; 9) Caught With Your Pants Down; 10) Whiskey On The Rocks; 11) Ballbreaker.
The title is stupid at worst, the songs are mediocre at best, and the balance is off. In between The Razor's Edge and Ballbreaker — an interim that lasted five years, seriously longer than any previous lapse period — AC/DC got old, and this is their panicky way of denying the obvious. The only thing that is truly «hard as a rock» about this record is the Young brothers' fingers that certainly get harder with each passing year — through experience as much as worsening skin condition. The sound is unmistakable.
Still, it must be stated clearly that Ballbreaker is decidedly uncommercial: after the occasional power pop melodies, crowd-pleasing singalong choruses, and dazzling gimmicks of The Razor's Edge, the band goes to basics again. Strictly mid-tempo, very much bluesy, sometimes even lazy and relaxed, this is music for the hardcore AC/DC fan, one who cherishes the vibe of these guys far more than the imprintability of their riffs in memory.
Not that there aren't any imprintable riffs. The Youngs stick to two styles — apocalyptic and sexalicious — and when they are in the «look out, danger ahead» mood, one that can be experienced equally strong regardless of age, it works: 'The Furor', 'Burnin' Alive', and 'Hail Caesar' are masterful highlights. 'Hail Caesar', in particular, has them seriously playing with fire, culminating in a series of mock-Nazi 'Hail!' exclamations as they warn the unsuspecting beer-guzzling fan against the evils of absolute power; and the riff, totally trivial but utterly evil, shows that they still have it in them to wring total genius from utter simplicity. As for 'Burnin' Alive', its introductory fifty seconds are only second to 'Hell's Bells' in the band's catalog for the status of «Greatest Tension Mounting Moment in AC/DC History» — slowly and patiently, the Youngs' guitars urge their way in, like a couple of vultures circling from afar, finally settling on the carcass to rip it apart to wild carnal cries of chief vulture B. J.
It is with the sexalicious part of the story that the real problems begin. Having concocted a cute pop melody for the album opener and lead single, 'Hard As A Rock', they apparently decided not to bother with the rest at all. Not only do songs like 'Cover You In Oil', 'Love Bomb', and 'The Honey Roll' feature some of the most inane lyrics in the band's pedigree (they base their approach on the innuendo-swarming pre-war blues style, but second-rate imitations of salaciousness cannot usually be described by words other than «laughable» or «idiotic»), the melodies are not at all engaging. And how many rewrites! Haven't we already heard 'Cover You In Oil' as 'Meanstreak' (where it was much better)? Didn't 'Boogie Man' used to be 'Night Prowler'? And why do they want to parody their own stop-and-start style of 'Whole Lotta Rosie' on the thoroughly inferior 'Caught With Your Pants Down'?
On the positive side again, five decent songs out of eleven (three ominous numbers plus 'Hard As A Rock' and the title track, which somehow manages to combine the ominous with the sexalicious) is not an altogether invalid proposition. Plus, Johnson seems to have somehow managed to cope with the destruction of his voice — he does not attempt so frequently to scream his head off, settling into a quiet, but shrill whine that alternates with sporadic Tom Waits-ish gruffness (the latter works particularly well on regular blues numbers like 'Boogie Man' — too bad AC/DC are not truly a blues band), and his presence is thus made more bearable (still, never make the mistake of playing this back to back with Back In Black).
So, Ballbreaker is not such an utter waste as it can seem on first listen; a flawed, uncomfortable album whose creators find it hard to deal with the mid-life creativity crisis, but one that might be worth revisiting if you are pursuing the study of the evolution of ballsy hard rock nuances. Judgement used to be thumbs down all the way, but these days, I'm not too sure. Surprisingly, I find myself returning to 'Hail Caesar' and 'Burnin' Alive' all the time. They just keep talking to me, the doggone bastards.