Review Summary: Billy Idol returns with a healthy dose of Rebel Yell influenced fun. He strays a little at times to new territory, but he's the Billy people fell in love with 20 years ago, just slightly aged.
His mother knows him as William Michael Albert Broad but most know him simply as Billy Idol. Several know him as the man who fronted proto-punk band Generation X. Others only know him as the dude who sang White Wedding
, that song from that Adam Sandler movie. I know him as my mother's favourite musician, someone she's seen every time he's come to Toronto for the past 20 years (as well as driving to Dakota this past summer to see him). I also know Billy as an artist who's remained scarily consistent with his albums. Sure, you could say Cyberpunk was pretentious, and I'm not about to disagree, but my point is that despite its commercial "failure", to the fans, Cyberpunk
is classic Vital Idol. Cyberpunk came out in 1993, and then Billy sort of disappeared, sort of. Billy kept touring, though not as often as he would if he was still recording albums.
Everything changed in 2005. On March 22nd, 2005, I was picked up from school by my mother, who'd left work early to get Billy's first new release in 12 years, Devil's Playground. What I heard was not a techno-industrial mis-mash, but rather a return to "classic" Billy. Found on the album was all you'd expect, with a pinch of lemon. The Elvis-like lip action? Check. Spikey blonde hair? Check. Guitar virtuoso/hairstylist extraordinaire Steve Stevens? Check. He was going back to his roots, sort of. No, he wasn't revisiting the punkish sounds of his Generation X days. Instead he returns to what made him famous; slightly synthesized hard rock with just a touch of his punk influence, all with a healthy gloss of pop. And that hint of lemon, which we'll get to. March 22nd was definitely a nice day to start again
If a band formerly idolized releases a new album, most of the artist/band's old fans will probably go to see them live. It's kind of sad, because most of these fans, the ones who mostly like the superhits, go to these shows without the intention of hearing the new material live, but rather use the new material as an excuse to listen to the classics they cherish. This is often reflected in the material; usually bands try to find a way to modernize their sound, to appeal to new audiences while still staying true their original fans. The problem is it usually does neither. Billy Idol sort of falls into this paradigm. Devil's Playground is a surprisingly solid album, it really is, but the fact is to most people, it's just a reason to get him touring again. Most people will go see his live show, not in hopes of Scream
. They're going to hear Rebel Yell. Or Mony Mony. Or maybe White Wedding. Whatever, you get the idea. It's not to say the album's without promise, either, because much of the album is strong and catchy. This is due in part to Steve Stevens, a man whose miniscule stature is dwarfed by both his hair and guitar playing ability. You see, this is the first album the songwriting duo has recorded together since 1986's Whiplash Smile. This is why Scream sounds much like Rebel Yell. This was surely no accident, but surely it was unintentional.
When Billy tries something "different", it's moderately successful. Billy's take on the classic folk song Plastic Jesus, which you'll recognize but probably won't remember, is cheeky and fun, but not all that necessary. The song, also covered by the Flaming Lips and made "famous" by Paul Newman in 1967s Cool Hand Luke
takes on a sound slightly alien to what Billy's known for. Sounding like a poppier take on a Bob Dylan song (though in fact, it is not a Bob Dylan song), Plastic Jesus is actually more successful than you'd expect. Billy is not the greatest singer; his voice, worn with age, is a lot raspier than his forceful shout of the past. This, I guess, is where I get the Bob Dylan remark. The tracks cheekiness, reflected in both the lyrics (originally written by either Ed Rush and George Cromarty or Ernie Marrs, no one seems sure) and the video, a moderately amusing romp featuring a 3D Billy rocking out on the dashboard of his car, hand in hand with the messiah, all the while being stared at by Bam Margera. The track, to me, is perhaps the most indicative of the albums sound and merit. It shows that Billy is a silly, often immature chap who, while looking to have fun, is also trying to mature his sound a bit. The lyrics are cheeky and silly, but the song is one of the more serious sounding ones on the album.
His maturity is a consistent struggle, one so apparent it translates over to his appearance. Looking at Billy, now 51, you notice a few things right off the bat. Two decades past his highest point of fame, Idol is still instantly recognizable. Draped in leather, a pursed upper lip and the famous platinum spikes, he definitely still looks like himself. But, beyond the "classic" Billy is a face burdened by wrinkles, a result not of age, but years of touring and, in the past, heavy alcohol abuse. Below his face, you have a washboard stomach. As much as Billy denies it, he is aging, but, I'll concede that he's in bloody awesome shame. All the more, this is not a personal ad, so I'll continue onto the aforementioned lead single, Scream
. To those who haven't heard the song, imagine a modern hard rock take on "classic Billy". The track, which is essentially a long standing reference to his penis and his yearning for you to climb up on it, sounds like a slightly harder, grittier Rebel Yell. Complete with innuendo, Billy's trademark yell and simplistically effective guitar hooks, the track is sure to make you feel uncomfortable when your forty plus mother plays it to you for the first time. She won't be uncomfortable though, because this is what she's waited 12 years for. The track was the perfect choice for a single; Steve Stevens executes his shred flawlessly, Billy belts out his trademark snark in a familiar, yet slightly harsher fashion. Scream does what it's supposed to. It let's you know Billy is back.
Sadly, or maybe on the plus side depending how you look at it, not every song brings back memories. Lady Do or Die is Billy's tribute to Johnny Cash, and it does actually work pretty well, but some may not appreciate it. This is where the main issue with the album comes. It's not something I have a problem with, as the variety is, for the most, executed tastefully, but for those who want a total and complete regurgitation of classic Billy, well, you won't like this so much. Lady Do or Die is a country song, no ifs ands or buts about it. The song is carried with a simple bass line, a one-two step (Insert Ciara joke here), some twang and a subdued, soft spoken Billy. This is not the only "think outside the box" track on the album, either. It's not even limited to two, when you consider the previously mentioned Plastic Jesus. Summer Running, for example plays its first two and a half minutes as a purely acoustic track. Throughout the acoustic section, Billy tells us (over building keyboards, care of virtuoso Derek Sherinian) that he's spent the summer running. Billy's spent it running to Zion (Rastafarian?), through Arizona and into the sun, all on his motorcycle. The track, lyrically, comes off like a tackier Born to Run. As the song becomes more and more --and it pains me to say this-- grandiose, it totally changes. 2:33 into the song, the acoustics fade and the song instantly turns to a bombastic drum and bass sound. The keyboards remain, however. 3:31 in, the song awkwardly turns back to an acoustic track, ending with an emotive electric solo care of Steve Stevens. While perhaps unnecessary, it's well executed. No, I did not expect to hear Billy Idol sing an anthemic (at least in its intentions) track over drum and bass, nor did I expect him to sing a traditional sounding homage to the likes of Johnny Cash. The main thing I really didn't expect was for it to work.
I know I'm dragging on, and so before I put you to sleep, if I haven't already, I'll sum it up quick. If you've were one of those waiting for the return of Billy (which I'll assume most of you aren't), this is sort your album. The pop hooks are still there, the yells and howls haven't left, and Billy is for the most just trying to have fun. If you frown at an artist branching out, to a semi (let's say 75%) successful degree, you may want to skip this, or at least the tracks mentioned in the previous paragraph. To sum it up, the album is really nothing outstanding, despite the illusion given off by the length of this review. There's nothing overly substantial on this album. Billy Idol is back, and he's doing it just as great as he ever has. A lot of times, you'll think you've heard this before, and you probably have. But, if it's not broken, why fix it. Reuniting with Steve Stevens and recruiting the likes of Derek Sherinian was a very, very smart move. Taking a 12 year break wasn't bad either. If you didn't like Cyberpunk, you've been given more than adequate time to forget it. So has Billy, and I think he's learned his lesson. He experiments on this album, but he always brings us back to why we all love him. Or loathe him.
He may be 51, but Billy Idol still makes me feel very, very
bad about my body. But, to stay relevant, I really sort of like this album. Sort of.