CHEAP TRICK: SPECIAL ONE (2003)
1) Scent Of A Woman; 2) Too Much; 3) Special One; 4) Pop Drone; 5) My Obsession; 6) Words; 7) Sorry Boy; 8) Best Friend; 9) If I Could; 10) Low Life In High Heels; 11) Hummer.
So, having just summarized the first quarter-century of their career, Cheap Trick are left free to turn over the page, clean up that slate, and embark upon the difficult journey of proving their ongoing relevance to the 21st century — something that is hard enough to do even for Radiohead, never mind a band that had always preferred to look back to the past rather than forward into the future for inspiration. And how do they fare?
Judging by contemporary reviews, not too good: most critics viewed Special One as a serious disappointment, bombarding it with one bad rap after another, and as I am quickly browsing through the various assessments, I find myself a little stumped, because, as far as my ears tell me, the worst thing that can be deduced about Special One is that there is nothing particularly special about it — and that might be a good thing, too, since we don't really want Cheap Trick to be influenced by Radiohead or the Beastie Boys or Godspeed You! Black Emperor; we just want them to turn out juicy, crunchy, reliable, old-fashioned power pop if they still can. And that is precisely what they do here, for forty-six minutes.
Make just one little amendment: we want power-pop with just a few subtle deviations from a narrow formula every now and then, so that we can slap a «creativity» label on the record, and in that regard, Special One does deliver. There's electric pop and there's acoustic pop; there's faster and slower tunes (maybe with a little too much emphasis on slow); there are tinges of psychedelia, there are violations of the classic pop structure, there's some humor, and there are no power ballads whatsoever. Throw in decent production standards and the fact that all the band members are still in good shape (Zander's roar is as roar-ish as it ever roared), and what else do you want?
What I believe is that few reviewers ever really made it past the opening track. ʽScent Of A Womanʼ is not the worst Cheap Trick song ever written, but it takes its subject way too seriously, and it does make Zander sound a bit like Roger Daltrey, as suggested by some of the reviewers, only while singing lyrics that were sure as hell not written by Pete Townshend: "A man don't add up to much next to a woman / A man can't ever forget the taste of a woman" — silly and gross, especially when it is sung without the least bit of irony in the singer's voice. You'd think these words and that exuberance would fit in just all right on any of their pompous glam-Eighties albums, but now it is not clear what they are doing at all in the middle of a perfectly valid power pop track, other than prove that when Cheap Trick are committed to show themselves as old-fashioned, they go all the way, warts and all.
Really, though, Special One is much more than just ʽScent Of A Womanʼ. The acoustic-based tracks, for one thing, are quite lovely — and, for that matter, Cheap Trick are rarely ever remembered for the beauty of their acoustic melodies. But the title track has an excellent slide lick cutting across its gentle stomp, and the song has an aura of gallant delicacy, rather than blunt crudeness of the past; and ʽWordsʼ is arguably the best imitation of Lennon's balladry style that they had managed to turn out at that point.
On the noisy rocking front, ʽPop Droneʼ, ʽSorry Boyʼ, and ʽBest Friendʼ all qualify, but pay special attention to ʽBest Friendʼ — foregoing the verse/chorus structure, this song gradually unfurls as a nasty egotistic paranoid crescendo, vocals and instruments going hand in hand, until, for the last two minutes, it simply becomes a hail of grinning "yeah yeah yeah"'s and Zander's hysterical screams of "leave me alone, I'm my best friend!". If you let yourself caught up in this, it's one hell of a way to disperse frustration, and as for the lyrics, even if they give the impression of being largely improvised on the spot ("I can't slow down cuz down we'll go / Where I step you don't wanna know"), they do generate an atmosphere of mean, sickly craziness of a thoroughly confused and pissed-off mind, which seems so welcome in 2016. And although some probably find the slow, murky, distortion-drenched progression of ʽSorry Boyʼ a disappointing example of alt-rock influence on the boys, I hear echoes of genuine ruthless cruelty (of course, in a thoroughly ironic presentation) in the song and think that it passes the basic quality test.
The funniest, if not necessarily the best, is saved for last: nobody ever pays any attention to ʽLow Life In High Heels / Hummerʼ, probably brushing it away as a 7-minute long musical joke that overstays its welcome to the point of aural cruelty, but I love it. It's one of those ʽWhy Don't We Do It In The Road?ʼ thing throwaways, where the success/failure of the joke crucially depends on the quality of its underlying groove, but this here groove is flawless — the band tightens itself up to AC/DC level and somehow makes the repetitiveness of Zander's ʽhmm-hmmʼ seem cool all the way. Along which way Nielsen hits upon quite a few extra cool riffs (the six-note pattern which he runs through four different octaves is priceless!), and Cheap Trick's rhythm section earns an extra star for making even a dead man tap his toes. It might be the silliest thing they ever did in their career up to that point — but it's actually surprising that it took them so long to get around to it, considering that the Beatles always were their main idols, and the Beatles were always game for some delightful silliness.
Probably a few of the songs still qualify as filler, and probably none of the good songs are on top level when it comes to sharpness, poignancy, relevancy, and depth for these guys; and maybe this is not quite up to the level of middle-age maturity that they displayed on the 1997 album. But it should, by all means, qualify as a solid, thoughtful entry into the catalog, and for what it's worth, I actually like it more than the somewhat overrated Rockford, so thumbs up it is.