Review Summary: If you like fun, breezy AOR, then give this thing a listen.
Perhaps one of the most polarizing classic rock groups, Bay Area stalwarts Journey were always gradually creeping toward their commercial peak, even during the Gregg Rolie years. Even Next, the last record with Rolie behind the mic, was integrating hints of straightforward AOR into the already-established jazz fusion rock sound. Around that time, it was no surprise that the band would look for a frontman like Steve Perry to kick things up a notch, considering the first three efforts didn't exactly impress the general public.
As with most bands in the whole AOR niche, however, Journey's music got so simplistic compared to the 1975-1977 days that the Rolie-era fans were blown back a little. The following era is exactly what made (and makes) Journey so polarizing, just as the commercial days of Genesis fared. However, whereas Genesis's big hit record Abacab was exceptionally weak (even by 80's pop standards), Journey's smash album Escape from 1981 actually injects a nice dose of instrumental proficiency and solid songwriting into its commercial formula.
To get it out of the way, no write-up of this thing can go without mentioning the lead single "Don't Stop Believin'," which has clearly been played, covered, and parodied to death. The uplifting E Major piano line that begins the tune is practically an iconic piece of classic rock history, as is the harmonized chorus ending the song. Every time I go back to this song, there's always a strong sense of nostalgia in the recording style and flair, a quality that many Journey songs seem to possess; it might be because of the very clear yet almost murky atmosphere underneath the wailing guitar solos and soaring vocals. In short, it essentially feels vintage.
What's unfortunate is that plenty of songs are often overlooked, mainly because of the hits like "Don't Stop Believin'," "Stone in Love," and "Open Arms." While they're all solidly-written pieces of AOR music, many people won't even know or remember other great songs such as the hard-hitting title track, the emotional ballad "Mother, Father," or the slightly progressive "Keep On Runnin'". The other thing to mention in this regard is the aforementioned technical proficiency given the genre these guys are playing in. Ross Valory's fretless (!) bass work is certainly worth a mention for how he can bend his instrument's role between subtly leading the group and providing a solid backbone for Neal Schon's guitar work. Steve Smith's role on the drums shouldn't be underestimated either; Smith is a heavily accomplished jazz fusion drummer, and the way he integrates such a musical background into Escape makes for very smooth dynamic shifts and swift fills weaving in and out of the other instruments. That said, I don't think Neal Schon or Steve Perry need an introduction, being two of the most talented people in classic rock music. Between Neal Schon's fiery guitar leads and Steve Perry's soaring vocals and impressive range, the whole package is very solid all-around.
So what's bad about all this? First off, there's a pretty dull patch in the middle, songs like the droning "Still They Ride" and the rockers "Lay It Down" and "Dead or Alive" aren't exactly impressive and feel more like filler than genuine efforts by the band. Also, the lyrics are pretty cheesy by today's standards, much of the love talk managing to get a good chuckle out of me. Remember that line from "The Girl is Mine" by Michael Jackson that said "because the doggone girl is mine"? That kind of lyricism is thrown about here, many cliches being pulled out instead of full-on emotion. Some ballads like the beautiful "Open Arms" don't fall into this trap, but it is still a pretty annoying hindrance for the album as a whole. Finally, the song structures also start to get pretty old, most songs opting for very similar means of progression to each other when placed side-to-side. This especially happens in the rockers, and all the end-of-song fade-outs out only add to this point (the fade-outs especially get pretty obnoxious after a while).
If you can get past those things, though, the album is a pretty great piece of breezy AOR music. No matter how polarizing Journey are, Escape is surely worth at least one listen. If you enjoy the fun side of rock, expect listening to this album a lot on roadtrips... or any car trip for that matter.