Review Summary: A pleasant surprise, this collection of B-Sides and tidbits uses relatively organic production and a wise balance of song types to its advantage.
Compilations containing B-Sides and other tidbits are often – practically by definition – such a mixed bag that they fail to flow cohesively… No matter how great the artist is. The format typically favors certain performers over others, with those bands prone to experimentation usually having some hidden gems just waiting to be discovered. Def Leppard are not that kind of band and since it took them nine years to make their previous two albums, such a release was merely seen as a way to technically avoid making their devoted fanbase wait so long for another album. How pleasantly surprising it is then, to discover that ‘Retro Active’ is actually a very good LP that stands well on its own.
Initial signs are unimpressive with the opening ‘Desert Song’ being an unsuccessful attempt at an atmospheric five minute epic that is only distinguished by a half-decent solo. The following ‘Fractured Love’ then begins atypically sparse with only marching-band like drums, faint hints of guitar and Joe Elliott’s whispered vocals for two minutes, before morphing into a solid, if disappointingly unimaginative, cut. Thankfully, any doubts as to the appeal of ‘Retro Active’ are soon put to rest as the album literally explodes into (pardon the pun) action.
For a portion of their career, it seemed that Def Leppard were attempting to distance themselves from the glam scene, which their sound had occasionally hinted at. At the very least, their personal taste for the scene is confirmed here with two covers both falling under that category. The first is of Sweet’s classic; ‘Action’. From its excellent beginning consisting of near-perfectly produced layered guitars, to the involving sing-along chorus, the English quintet hit the spot here and add just enough of their own slant to make this a resounding success. Mick Ronson’s ‘Only After Dark’ is also given the Def Leppard treatment, if not quite as successfully.
From the mid 80s to early 90s, Def Leppard practically perfected the power ballad. Tracks such as ‘Love Bites’, ‘Hysteria’ and ‘Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad’ drew in fans by the masses. However, the band realized that they couldn’t exactly fill ‘Hysteria’ and ‘Adrenalize’ with such cuts, resulting in a couple of excellent left-overs appearing here.
Containing a chorus which is sure to be ingrained into minds long after it is heard, ‘Two Steps Behind’ – an acoustic strings-assisted ballad which was used in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘Last Action Hero’ film – showcases the fantastic interplay between Elliott and the backing vocals, a trait which has become one of the major attributes of the band. Furthermore, the Phil Collen penned piano ballad ‘Miss You In A Heartbeat’, will also tug at the emotional heart-strings, even if some listeners could find it a touch too corny due to the background “woo woos” in its chorus.
As with most compilations of this kind, there is usually one revelation that comes from out of left field and borderline shocks listeners. In the case of ‘Retro Active’, it is track 9 ‘From The Inside’. A folky piece which is brilliantly put together, the cut contains unconventional instruments such as a mandolin, a grand piano and even a tin whistle! Written from the perspective of an addictive drug, lyrics such as “I’ll mess up your life, I’ll beat up your wife, I’ll lose all your friends and I’ll win in the end”, are masterfully delivered by Elliott’s impeccably controlled vocals which add a different sense of melody to what this kind of song would usually include.
Even the perceived filler of ‘Retro Active’ is rather good. ‘Ride Into The Sun’ has been deservedly re-recorded (complete with an unnecessary piano intro) and given the production levels it deserves some 15 years after its appearance on the band’s debut EP. ‘She’s Too Tough’ and ‘Ring Of Fire’ are sufficient enough, while the more conventionally structured ‘I Wanna Be Your Hero’ is verging on being one of the album’s highlights and was desperately unlucky not to be used as a late album ‘Hysteria’ or ‘Adrenalize’ track. Even the alternate electric versions of ‘Two Steps Behind’ and ‘Miss You In A Heartbeat’ are worthwhile to close the album out, even if a third (piano version) of the latter is taking it a little too far.
While ‘Retro Active’ cannot be rated super highly, it is extremely rare for a compilation album such as this to do so. With that in mind, this is indeed a pleasant surprise which will at least please some of Def Leppard’s longtime fans due to the relatively organic production levels used here. Importantly, a wise balance of song types is included within the 46 minute (60 if the three alternate versions are counted) duration, meaning that the accessible tracks resulted in this album still selling well and deservedly going top 10 in both the U.S & U.K.
Recommended Tracks: Two Steps Behind, Action, From The Inside & Miss You In A Heartbeat.