CHEAP TRICK: CHEAP TRICK (1997)
1) Anytime; 2) Hard To Tell; 3) Carnival Game; 4) Shelter; 5) You Let A Lotta People Down; 6) Baby No More; 7) Yeah Yeah; 8) Say Goodbye; 9) Wrong All Along; 10) Eight Miles Low; 11) It All Comes Back To You.
Yes, it's that time of the year — exactly twenty years after you had first appeared on the screen, go back, refresh, renew, and reboot yourself by trying to recapture that old vibe. It certainly took them longer than one could expect, what with the synth-pop and hair-metal trends effectively reversed around 1991 or so, but better late than never, and with a new producer and a new (small) record label, Cheap Trick '97 is able not only to capitalize on the faint promise made by Woke Up With A Monster, but, in fact, to finally take this band off life support.
Definitively objective fact: at the very least, this is the best-sounding Cheap Trick album since 1979. Each and every song builds upon the original, most efficient components of the band's sound — crisp and crunchy electric guitars from Nielsen; crackling, punchy, serviceable acoustic drums from Bun E. Carlos; sneering lionine roar from Zander; occasional piano and cello overdubs to introduce an art-poppier texture — and new producer Ian Taylor (with whom they'd already worked briefly during the One To One sessions) is clearly such a big fan of the classic 1977-79 records that he does not lift a finger to make the sound more «modern», at the risk of making these guys lose momentum. In this particular respect, this is as strong a comeback as could ever be expected.
Whether the songwriting is up to par with the sound is a much more difficult question. Whatever we might feel or think, those guys did get older in twenty years, and furthermore, when you have been through a ten-year period of relentless yellow fever, you can hardly expect it to go away for good without leaving any lasting side effects whatsoever. These side effects are tricky, though: we cannot blame Cheap Trick '97 for any embarrassing power ballads (there are none!) or disgusting wear-your-cock-on-your-sleeve exercises in loud and tuneless salaciousness (instead, there are just a couple fast-paced old-style garage rockers with misogynistic overtones). We can only say that, perhaps, these new songs are not as immediately captivating or as brimming with youthful passion and snotty sarcasm as it used to be — yes, Cheap Trick's songwriting skills have been somewhat irrepairably impaired, but then, frankly speaking, twenty years of scooping ideas from your well of thoughts might do that to anyone, regardless of whether you have been to The Doctor in the interim or not.
Thus, the opening track ʽAnytimeʼ has a great sound: the guitars roar with just the right degree of menace, Zander goes from «evil clown» vocals in the verse to an all-out roar in the chorus with gusto, and the good old need-your-love-so-bad-it's-driving-me-crazy vibe is honored throughout with the highest honors. But as a respectable composition that should take its rightful place next to ʽHot Loveʼ or ʽBig Eyesʼ... well, it would at least need a great riff, or a more interesting chorus than "I need your love, I need your love". As it is, it is hard to get rid of the feeling that they are simply exerting their craft to the max in order to sound like they did in 1977... well, apparently, which is what they really do, but sometimes you can make it seem very natural (like you've really been visited by your muse again, first time in ages), and sometimes not, and this is one of the sometime nots. But if you love that overall sound — and I do — you'll pardon them anyway.
Plus, there are much better songs here than ʽAnytimeʼ: if not in terms of great guitar riffs, then at least in terms of singalong choruses. ʽHard To Tellʼ is a great example — the way "it's not that easy, baby, it's not that hard to tell..." resolves into "life is hell — but I do it well!" is a good setup for an ecstatic reaction, because few people can scream the word "hell" with such a good mixture of pain and anger as Robin does, and then he contrasts it masterfully with the optimistic swerve of "I do it well", and you get a good charge of frustration and hope in one package. It might all be a little more serious and introspective and «grounded» than the lighter, funnier stuff on the classic records, but hey, that's how human beings usually get as they grow older.
In terms of creativity, ʽCarnival Gameʼ combines Revolver-style vocal harmonies with a cool wah-wah solo; ʽYou Let A Lotta People Downʼ sounds like a trademark pissed-off solo Lennon number, with Zander borrowing quite a few of John's classic vocal moves (well, maybe that's not all that creative, but it's been so long...); and ʽEight Miles Lowʼ is the album's most experimental-psychedelic number, though certainly not in a Byrdsey way — its main point is the curious "dream the dream the scream the scream" chorus, a modest, but successful experiment of giving a falsetto voice to the darker undercurrents of your subconscious.
And then there are the ballads, all (both) of them tastefully arranged and pleasantly delivered — ʽShelterʼ, an acoustic song adorned with some cello and steeped in self-misery and self-irony; and ʽIt All Comes Back To Youʼ, which is not about successfully recapturing the musical vibe that once used to inspire and support you, but rather about one last recollection of your meaningless life before kicking the bucket — sung with just a small pinch of pathos and plenty of humility, as Nielsen quietly picks the acoustic and tiny splashes of pianos and strings punctuate Zander's trembling vocals at the right intervals: a perfect finale for an album that seems so perfectly well aware of its limitations, yet still honestly tries to work them to best effect.
All in all, even though neither the LP nor its lead single (ʽSay Goodbyeʼ, another pretty, but not instantly memorable power pop single with a touch of nostalgia and a touch of Lennon) managed to properly chart, we don't need to pay much attention to that circumstance in 2016 — instead, I am just glad to give the record a well-deserved, if modest, thumbs up and heartily recommend it to anybody who loves the classic era of Cheap Trick so much that he/she'd gladly welcome a somewhat inferior, but fully effective imitation for the collection. Besides, who knows, you might even like it better than the old stuff as you grow older — there's all this nostalgic vibe here that don't work that well when you're twenty, but whose chances of hitting you right in the guts increase with each passing year. I'm not quite up to that stage yet, but let me revisit this in a decade or so and then we'll see clearer.