Sunday, June 5, 2022

A Diamond Star Comeback: Def Leppard Still Matters

“If alcoholism, car crashes and cancer couldn’t kill us, the ’90s had no fucking chance.”

When Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott spoke these words during his band’s acceptance speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in 2019, he added an air of levity and confidence to one of the rockiest narratives in music history. In addition to losing one member to addiction (guitarist Steve Clark, who left us in 1991) and almost losing one in a devastating car accident (drummer Rick Allen, who lost an arm in 1984) and another to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (Clark’s replacement, Vivian Campbell, who’s still very much with us), the band struggled to overcome another near-fatal calamity at various points throughout the 90s and well into the early 2000s: Declining public interest. This writer will never forget the sight of Def Leppard playing to a crowd of… hundreds… in San Bernardino, CA in 2005 as the opening act for Bryan Adams. It was a far cry from the band’s arena-conquering heights of yesterday and a clear sign that things were not going particularly well for one of the leading bands of the 1980s.

Of course, anyone remotely familiar with Def Leppard’s history should have known it would come back swinging one of these days. After all, 1987’s mega-selling Hysteria – the band’s major comeback following Allen’s accident – came out 35 years ago. The very fact that the band’s still in business after all this time is certainly enough reason to still have faith.

Well, great things come to those who wait.

After a string of fairly lukewarm albums that did little to elevate the band back to its past glories, the lads from Sheffield have finally delivered a (mostly) molten course correction with the recently released Diamond Star Halos.

Before diving in, let’s first get two critical things out of the way…

1. Def Leppard ceased being a dirty Rock band after 1981’s High ‘n’ Dry. Full stop. No amount of yearning for the past – and nothing on Diamond Star Halos – will ever reverse this fact.

2. Does Diamond Star Halos measure up to the band’s first four albums? Of course not. Is this still the best record these guys have put out since 1992’s Adrenalize and a helluva lot better than anyone could have reasonably expected the band to be at this stage of the game? Without question.

The members of Def Leppard have always readily acknowledged the internal impact of the ’70s Rock era that spawned them. Although they frequently displayed this fandom on their previous 11 albums – just listen to the clearly Thin Lizzy-inspired twin guitar opening to 1981’s “Bringing On The Heartbreak” and the music-hero-name-checking lyrics to 1987’s “Rocket” for starters – the fellas wear their influences on the sleeves in full force on Diamond Star Halos. Hell, even the album title is a reference to T-Rex’s “Bang A Gong”!

Fans got a taste of the new album’s sonic direction in March with the release of the single “Kick,” an absolutely brilliant throwback to the days when music fans bay city rolled their way to the record shop to purchase Sweet 45s.

While the brightest spots on the rest of the record embrace this retro vibe with great aplomb, they also dig deep into the band’s own classic sound to mine new treasures.

An all-out rocker as good as anything the band did in 1983, album opener “Take What You Want” could easily fit on Pyromania (really!), while “Liquid Dust, “Gimme A Kiss,” “From Here To Eternity,” “All We Need” and the fantastic “SOS Emergency” remind the listener of Hysteria’s strongest tunes without reinstating the heavy layers of synthetic studio magic that often oversaturated that album’s production. In fact, much of Diamond Star Halos – especially in the drum and bass departments – showcases a considerably more organic sound than the band’s standard post-High ‘n’ Dry fare. (Let’s be honest here: As great as Hysteria is and will always be, most of it sounds about as human as an ’80s video game soundtrack.)

The album’s bona fide left-field moment, the midtempo near-Grunge stomper “Open Your Eyes,” finds Def Leppard stretching its musical legs via some of the most impressive interplay between Allen and bassist Rick Savage ever captured by the duo on record.

On paper, “Goodbye For Good This Time” and “Angels (Can’t Help You Now)” – both featuring former David Bowie sideman Mike Garson on piano – should be terrible: Requisite ballads replete with heavy orchestration and cringe-worthy lyrics that could have been scrolled on a napkin 30 seconds before the “record” button was hit. But when these tracks work, they work: The stringed breakdown at the 2:20 point of “Goodbye” is simply breathtaking, while Elliott’s slightly strained vocal performance on “Angels” adds enough edge to balance out the saccharine.

Unfortunately, not everything could be similarly saved. “Fire It Up” is disposable singalong fluff that would have been better served as a b-side than as the pre-album release single it inexplicably became. Despite its unfortunate title, “U Rok Mi” is okay enough – perfectly passable ’90s-era Leppard but not really much to write home about. The same goes for “Unbreakable,” a potentially killer number hamstrung by a head-scratching Pop production better suited for a Katy Perry song.

The two songs that feature Country-Bluegrass singer Alison Krauss range from somewhat tolerable (the appropriately named “Lifeless”) to downright insufferable (the horrendous “This Guitar”). Crossover tracks aren’t inherently bad when the combinations add something of value – both creatively and commercially – to the participants (and Krauss is certainly brilliant in her own right as an individual artist), but including these steam-depleting tracks on Diamond Star Halos is a concept that falls flat. When it comes to Diamond Star Halos’ low points, I suspect that at least some of this record was conceived in a boardroom.

From a marketing perspective, Diamond Star Halos hits all the necessary beats without challenging the listening public too much. From a lifelong fan’s perspective, I wish the band had dumped at least five of the album’s 15 tracks.

To be fair, Diamond Star Halos has the lofty task of appealing to three vastly different groups within Def Leppard’s current fanbase: The casual music fans who only know the hits, the middle-aged Pyromania/Hysteria fanatics and the old-school Metal headbangers who will always think “Wasted” off 1980’s On Through The Night is the best song the band ever wrote. Despite its occasional missteps, Diamond Star Halos largely succeeds in keeping everyone happy – and that’s all we should ask of any veteran act still releasing new music in 2022.

Flawed but still highly recommended.