Mick Jagger Goddess in the Doorway
Paul McCartney Driving Rain
Elton John Songs from the West Coast
Hear that faint little rumble? The dinosaurs are loose again. But don't fret; these are docile beasts that aren't scary at all, although you may want to keep their new albums at a safe distance.
Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Elton John. Pop legends all. The establishment rock press (Rolling Stone, especially) has been very kind to the grizzled triumvirate, touting their new efforts as significant late-career statements or out-and-out new leases on life.
Except for Jagger's solid Goddess in the Doorway — which is the best of his four otherwise dismal solo albums — don't buy the hype. McCartney and John sound tired, wrung out even, even though they claimed to have found new exhilaration while creating the music.
The book on Jagger, 58, is that these are the jetset rock star's most personal songs. And it's true, up to a point. Yes, he's shed the lecherous hoodoo man persona in favor of a more earnest approach, but it's not as if we're getting gobs of gut-wrenching insight here. And I drove through the desert/ I was in my four wheel drive/ I was looking for the Buddha/ And I saw Jesus Christ, he sings on the anthemic Joy. And who do you think he's trading verses with? Why, Bono, of course.
Jagger's confessionals are littered with cliches (I am your brand new fool) and, at times, overwrought metaphor. Ultimately, his glimmer image makes for more interesting songs than his supposedly laid-bare self. The hard-charging Everybody Getting High is the disc's most swaggering number, and easily one of its best. I'm checkin' out the Kung Fu actor/ Boy is he way up his ass/ He won't even talk to me/ But he wants to show me how to dance. That kind of smirking arrogance simply wears better on Mick.
Hook-wise, the lone Stone is pretty on the mark. Dylan-esque quasi-folk epics (Don't Call Me Up, Brand New Set of Rules) nestle with techno-influenced dance-club rock (Gun), slinky R&B (Hideaway, Dancing in the Starlight) and stompin' rave-ups (God Gave Me Everything, a collaboration with Lenny Kravitz). The production was built from acoustic guitar outward and, depending on the song, then outfitted with loops, strings, fuzzy guitars, synth blasts and other sonic filigree — generally to good effect. Jagger dodged the temptation to go all trendy and bring in someone like the Dust Brothers to produce; rather, he let the songs dictate the arrangements.
McCartney took a different production approach for his first album of new material in four years, working quick and dirty with a small group of young musicians he'd never met. Sir Paul, 59, really enjoyed the sessions, but the tunes he brought simply don't measure up. For the most part, Driving Rain is an array of silly love songs with melodies that sound either recycled, forced or simply awkward.
This is a man who, since 1997's Flaming Pie, lost his longtime wife to cancer, grieved profusely, then found a new love. Is this not pretty good songwriting fodder? McCartney has long been one to skim the lyrical surface, but is there any excuse for the following treacle: What am I to do/ If I don't have you/ I'll be feeling blue/ Just sitting here without you/You could be the one/ To chase my blues away.
The best that can be said about Driving Rain is that Paul's vocal chops are in surprisingly strong form, and sometimes he infuses his singing with such charm that it can lift up a mediocre tune.
The vocals are one of the core problems on Elton's Songs From the West Coast. His once-rousing tenor long ago gave way to something akin to braying, especially on ballads. That his new disc is almost all slow-to-medium tempo only exacerbates the problem.
John, 54, tossed aside his recent penchant for soundtrack schlock in favor of piano-driven arrangements and serious subject matter. But his work on the ivories lacks the muscle and rhythmic inventiveness of his early work, coming off as too mannered. Bernie Taupin's lyrics are his usual literate fare, but a song like American Triangle — about the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming — comes off as disappointingly remote. Despite John's stated intention to revisit the magic of his early '70s work, Songs From the West Coast is little more than competent, good only when compared to his recent descent into crap.
In light of these three releases, it's a safe bet that rock is not about to enter a new Jurassic age.
Kid Rock Cocky
On the inside cover of Kid Rock's latest redneck-rap opus, the following quote is presented in big, bold type: If it looks good; you'll see it; If it sounds good, you'll hear it, if it's marketed right, you'll buy it; but if it's real, you'll feel it. The homily is attributed, of course, to Rock himself — one of the most fundamentally unreal pop-culture icons ever to swagger to stardom. Devil Without a Cause didn't blow up because it was in any way real. It blew up because it was exactly the opposite, a Cinderella hick-to-pimp fantasy starring a guy with brains enough to hide them behind a ton of bravado and a modest rhyme-writing talent. With Cocky, Rock and his Twisted Brown Trucker Band have attempted to more fully reconcile their rock-rap origins with an enthusiasm for American roots music. More than half of the disc forgoes the patented riffage-and-rant in favor of acoustic guitars and melodic vocals a la God Only Knows. Which begs the question: Exactly what in hell was the Kid thinking. He must believe that America's radio-spoonfed testosterone contingent will embrace his now-overt country/Southern rock bent. He can't actually be planning on converting a new throng of roots fans, because the material is horrible. The tracks that blend the two styles more even-handedly (Forever, You Never Met a Motherf**ker Quite Like Me) fare a little better, if only by dint of Rock's knack for penning entertaining couplets that stick in the brain. But nothing here matches the huge, anthemic bombast of Devil's hits. Lay It On Me and the title track come closest, and will likely prove favorites among fans. They're still not that good, however, and if the country stuff wasn't bad enough, the rap-metal clone I'm Wrong, But You Ain't Right and cock-rockin' I'm A Dog manage to reach new, uninspired lows. (Lava/Atlantic)