There has always been something special about music made by a band. The mysterious chemistry that results when people write and play songs together is the essence of rock and roll. Regardless of the fact that Talk Is Cheap is better than any Stones record since Tattoo You, nothing on that album comes close to supplanting the sweet sound of Keith and Mick’s ragged harmonies. The fact that X hasn’t put out anything remotely listenable in years does nothing to reduce the thrill of seeing John Doe and Exene take the stage together. Whether it’s McCartney/Lennon, Morrissey/Marr, or Strummer/Jones, many of the best songs in the rock canon have been the product of collaboration.
The positive effects of musical democracy are not limited to the contribution individual band members make to the songwriting process. Sometimes the very fact that a song has to be filtered through the sensibilities of other human beings serves as a check on a songwriter’s flakier and more self-indulgent inclinations. During his time in the Replacements, Paul Westerberg was known to remark that he would be writing dramatically different songs if he wasn’t in a band with the Stinson brothers; with them out of the way, he was free to foist dreck like “Dyslexic Heart” on the music-buying public. Embarking on her solo career, Natalie Merchant claimed to be tired of even the limited say the anonymous white guys in 10,000 Maniacs had in how her songs were recorded; regardless of what you think of the Maniacs, anyone who has had the misfortune of hearing Motherland would acknowledge that the boys in the band were probably doing some good with their constructive criticism.
Styx’s grand illusionist Dennis DeYoung no doubt felt a similar sense of liberation as he rolled out his first solo album, Desert Moon, in 1984. Since the commercial success of 1979’s treacly “Babe,” his love of ornate melodies and operatic bombast had been gaining the upper hand over the hard-rock sensibilities of Styx guitarists Tommy Shaw and James “J.Y.” Young. The tension between the band mates, well documented in a thoroughly entertaining Behind the Music episode, culminated in the band agreeing to go on “hiatus” after Shaw and Young survived the acting turns DeYoung forced upon them during the kabuki-style presentations that passed for Styx concerts on the Kilroy Was Here tour.
Listening to Desert Moon, it’s hard to believe that Dennis DeYoung ever fronted one of the most ambitious and succesful hard-rock bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sure, the opener “Don’t Wait For Heroes,” is rousing enough, but this introduction to the work of solo-by-numbers guitarist Tom Dziallo probably didn’t make Styx diehards forget about Tommy. Likewise, Rosemary Butler’s backing vocals on “Please” pale in comparison to the dense, close-range harmonies that were often a mind-blowing feature of Styx’s sonic landscape.
But neither of those tracks would have prepared the Styx fan for the Meatloaf-meets-Grease train wreck that is “Boys Will Be Boys,” a wannabe summer anthem. Somewhere in the midst of all the wacky call-and-response chaos you can almost hear the other members of Styx laughing their asses off. This track places Moon light years away from the vintage rumble of Shaw-penned hits like “Renegade” and “Blue Collar Man.”
The too-long title track opens side two and is perfectly summarized by the album’s cover, which features Dennis modeling a satin jacket as he stands astride an enormous purple synthesizer stretching toward a night-time desert landscape. Desert Moon is meant to be a romantic place, but it’s barrenness could just as easily symbolize a songwriter running out of ideas. (In fact, DeYoung would later turn to writing operas for Liza Minelli to revive his creative spark.)
“Desert Moon” is followed by “Suspicious,” whose slinky rhythm and jazzy chord changes showcase Dennis’s voice to good effect. A bit of an outlier in the DeYoung canon, it’s smooth, snappy, and actually kind of fun to listen to. Oddly enough, for someone who earned a reputation as a control freak, this is also one of the rare moments on the album where DeYoung outshines his pedestrian backing band. Unfortunately, the spell is quickly broken by the album’s closing tracks, “Gravity,” a pale descendant of “The Grand Illusion,” and “Babe” knockoff “Dear Darling (I’ll Be There),” a song so awful I dare not attempt to describe it here.
Taken as a whole, Desert Moon seems to reflect a chastened Dennis DeYoung, pulling back from the over-the-top conceits of Paradise Theater and Kilroy and grounding himself in mid-tempo, keyboard-heavy tunes that generally have more spunk than “Babe” but shun the melodrama of , say, “The Best of Times.” This collection seems intended to establish him as a singer/songwriter in the vein of Billy Joel or Elton John, but evokes Lou Gramm more than it does either of those two. Despite the fact that DeYoung is capable of crafting a memorable hook (as if you’ve never had the chorus to “Mr. Roboto” caught in your head), his lyrics lack the irony that mark the best songs of Joel or John. In fact, the lyrics on Desert Moon are so banal that their existence seems to preclude the fact that any pop song might ever have thought-provoking lyrics. Stranded between his hard-rocking past and his future writing Broadway show tunes, DeYoung seems backed into a corner writing a-b-a-b rhymes just barely coherent enough to garner a little mainstream airplay.
And make no mistake, a quest for airplay could be the only raison d’etre behind Desert Moon. But far from a character flaw, I find that single-mindedness to be one of the few charming things about Dennis DeYoung. He represents a tradition almost completely absent in our era of trust fund-supported victimhood and musical melancholy. Fresh off an acrimonious breakup, Moon finds DeYoung too busy peddling pop product to dis his former band mates. He aspires only to be a crafter of enjoyable songs, to make his audience happy enough to take a few units off his hands, and then to leave him alone. And of course, what may have been a lopsided transaction in 1984 (Dennis gets your $9.99, and you walk away with a couple of hummable choruses) is a much more consumer-friendly deal when initiated in today’s cut-out bin.
It’s best to view Desert Moon not as a bold statement of independence from the shackles of Styx, or a coming-of-age party for a veteran songsmith, or even a good album, but simply the humble work of a pop music journeyman. Although I’m sure this collection disappointed fans of Styx’s late-70s dinosaur rock, there was probably never any doubt in Dennis DeYoung’s mind that he would clean up his image and pasteurize his sound to appeal to fans in a new decade. He wanted to sell records, not make a statement. If the tenor of the times said keyboards were cool and a man could wear a perm without getting his ass kicked, well, that was just fine with him.