Songs from the
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Reviewed by Will Harris
Though the band’s last collection of originals, 2002’s X, was less than exhilarating, their 2006 covers album Yeah! found DefLep sounding thoroughly reinvigorated as they roared through their versions of the songs that made them want to be rock stars in the first place. As such, excitement was running rather high that their next album would be among the strongest of their career, and when the Sgt. Pepper-inspired cover art was released, it only served to heighten the anticipation. But, then, the word leaked out that the album would feature a collaboration with Tim McGraw…and, suddenly, Songs from the Sparkle Lounge began to sound a whole lot less interesting.
Def Leppard are in a very unique position in the music industry, having managed to maintain enough sales momentum over the decades to keep their major-label deal with Mercury while their peers do stints in lesser locations like CMC International, SPV, and Frontiers Records. The band’s decision to work the Wal-Marts and make the state fair rounds was an undeniably savvy marketing move, playing to the locations where they could arguably find the most fans; unfortunately, when Yeah! was released, Mercury stuck it to those same fans by offering different bonus tracks to different retailers…and, worse, Def Leppard went along with it. Target, Best Buy, WalMart, and iTunes each tacked unique inclusions onto their copies of the album, and the band held a prize giveaway on their website that could only be entered by the fans that were willing buy a copy of Yeah! from each location. The result: Def Leppard’s 10th consecutive Top 20 album.
This leads us to pose a very disconcerting question: how much of this album’s sound was decided by Def Leppard, and how much was decided by a marketing committee at Mercury Records?
Maybe that’s too cynical, but at the very least, it’s clear that the track listing has been structured in an attempt to win new fans rather than please those who’ve stuck by the band. Songs from the Sparkle Lounge kicks off with “Go,” one of the least successful album openers in the band’s career; despite its grinding guitars and pounding drum beat, the song offers precious little in the way of a hook, instead only seeming to shout, “Listen to us as we hold our own with today’s hard-rock artists!” Next up is “Nine Lives,” the aforementioned Tim McGraw collaboration, which starts with the requisite twang that’s inevitable with such a pairing, but after a great pre-chorus, the song’s actual chorus is a complete bore; it’s therefore nothing more than a testament to the power of name recognition in marketing that the track was selected to be used as the opening for ABC’s NBA broadcasts this season. Left languishing in the #3 slot is “C’mon, C’mon,” a glam-rock stomper equipped with lyrics that would’ve made so much better a starting point for the record (“Baby, baby, won’t you give me a good time? / Squeeze me, please me, make it feel like the last time”) that one can’t imagine it wasn’t originally intended as such by the band.
From there, things settle into a familiar Def Leppard groove that the faithful will no doubt appreciate. “Tomorrow” and “Hallucinate” are classic melodic rockers, “Love” is a Queen-inspired ballad which explodes into a symphony of riffs and harmonies just after the three-minute mark, and “Only the Good Die Young” (not the Billy Joel song) is one of the catchiest pop-rock songs that the band has delivered in years. “Bad Actress,” meanwhile, succeeds everywhere that “Go” fails, with the group completely kicking out the jams and sounding more energized than they have in years. Despite these victories, however, Songs from the Sparkle Lounge still occasionally suffers from many of the same problems that plagued X, feeling like Def Leppard by the numbers more often than it should…but does the fault lie with the band, feeling like they need to stick perilously close to their established sound to keep their fans happy, or is Mercury to blame because the familiar is easier for them to market? (The probable answer: a little from Column A, a little from Column B.)
It’s a fair bet that the commercial success of “Nine Lives” will earn the band at least one more album for Mercury; one only hopes it will end up sounding more like a Def Leppard album and less like a Def Leppard product.