Review Summary: Heroin Diaries Soundtrack features some of the most emotive and consistent songwriting of Nikki Sixx's career
In awful taste though the terminology is, I could neatly be described as a Nikki Sixx junkie. Whether through fate or, once again, just awful taste, I’ve managed to assemble a complete collection of every record the bassist has been meaningfully involved in, as well as guest spots, production jobs and hazy messages on Butch Walker’s answering machine (yes, there’s more than one of those.) If the experience hasn’t destroyed my critic cred forever, it’s at least taught me to approach each new release with caution; while Sixx has produced some of the most enjoyable and most meaningful music in my collection, he’s also been party to two of the worst records I’ve had the misfortune to own: Motley Crue
’s New Tattoo
and Brides Of Destruction
’s Runaway Brides
(he wisely jumped ship before recording began)- and that’s only this side of the millennium.
So, caution then with this latest release, the Heroin Diaries Soundtrack
. The soundtrack originally began as a low-key musical accompaniment piece to Sixx’s upcoming memoir The Heroin Diaries
(released September 18). Working with long-time production and songwriting partners James Michael (vocals) and DJ Ashba (guitars, ex-Beautiful Creatures
), the project blossomed into something more meaningful and, following the release of the song ‘Life Is Beautiful,’ the band came up with the name Sixx:A.M. (incorporating each of their surnames) and announced ‘Life Is Beautiful’ as the lead single. Since its release, ‘Life Is Beautiful’ has fared far better than anybody could have predicted, hitting #26 on the Billboard rock singles chart with minimal press coverage and no television appearances- not a bad showing from a bunch of a band with an average age above forty.
The single itself is a tightly-constructed slice of pop rock, flawlessly produced (hardly surprising, considering all three band members produce as a day job) with a soaring chorus of the inoffensive but infectious radio rock brand which Daughtry and Nickelback call home. Michael’s vocal performance is the song’s defining feature, as it is for the bulk of the album, elevating relatively standard pop arrangements with his immaculately voiced but various and expressive vocals. ‘Pray For Me,’ the likely second single, sees the singer contrast an ironically detached verse in the style of Interpol’s Paul Banks with a clean, uplifting chorus in the Daughtry vein; ‘Dead Man’s Ballet’ casts the singer in a more nuanced, dramatic style which recalls the work of Meat Loaf; in ‘Courtesy Call,’ he’s a dead ringer for U2’s Bono; and ‘Permission’ fades out to an uncannily Chris Robinson (Black Crowes)-like blues jam. The sole criticism that can be offered is that, despite the variety, each of his vocal performances appears to be in imitation of another singer, which can become frustrating in light of the occasionally stunning, show-stealing flourishes, such as the heart-breaking ‘Accidents Can Happen.’
Sonically, the album doesn’t do an awful lot to distinguish itself from its mainstream rock peers. The songs follow the quiet verse/loud chorus pop dynamic with ruthless precision; the infectious, soaring choruses are plentiful to the point of annoyance, and the few songs which eschew the formula follow the well-tested, tension-building style prevalent in theatrical rock. The “rock n’ roll circus” idea, which has always played an important part in Motley Crue’s live shows, is brought to the fore as a musical theme here. Introductory narrative ‘X-Mas In Hell’ perfectly captures the tragic/comic dichotomy, wrapping increasingly tense and dramatic “circus” music around a spoken-word piece which pits the historical Sixx at his lowest and most pathetic (and the beginning of the book) while mid-album interlude ‘Intermission’ and closing statement ‘Life After Death’ reaffirm the theme. ‘Dead Man’s Ballet’ and ‘Van Nuys’ could be outtakes from the sessions of the latest Bat Out Of Hell
album (to which both Sixx and Michael contributed); both pint-sized epics clearly mean to invoke Jim Steinman’s writing on the first two Bat Out Of Hell
albums, while the latter in particular evokes Meat Loaf’s stirring, heart-on-sleeve vocal triumphs.
The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack
’s most striking feature (apart from the programmed drumming) is its consistency; while structurally it’s consistently formulaic and sterile, the vocals are exceptional throughout, while melodically and lyrically, it’s as strong as anything Sixx has put out in the last twenty years. ‘Accidents May Happen’ is heart-rending, as Nikki (via James) recalls his drug relapses with the reassuring chorus: “you know that accidents can happen/And it's OK, we all fall off the wagon sometimes/It's not your whole life, it's only one day/You haven't thrown everything away.”
‘Pray For Me’ features one of many allusions to a girl who tries to help him become clean, noting from a distance: “now I'm hittin' a wall/And she's begs me to quit/And she drags me to church/But I'm scared to commit/And I'm losing my mind/Cos she hides all my shit/And she won't go away.”
‘Heart Failure’ is the starkest and most dire of all the tracks, the one wake-up all after all the ignored warning signs. Detailing his actual clinical death in 1987 (legendary as he is, he came back to life soon afterwards), Nikki writes: “I’m face down on the tracks/The train is coming fast/And it’s not derailing/It’s not the first time/And it won’t be the last/That my heart is failing.”