One afternoon, in the early summer of 1978, I was six years old and sitting in my cousin’s Camaro. He had painted it a glossy purple with metallic flake, and I thought it was so cool. That it sat on blocks in Grandma’s driveway most of the time didn’t diminish its draw for me at all. You see, it had a tape player, and on this particular day, it was introducing me to Cheap Trick’s In Color. There were men on motorcycles on the cassette cover, which I also thought was cool, and there was a thrum of pure excitement in my ears, which I thought was even cooler. Though I knew quite a lot about rock and roll and had a fairly wide variety of favorite music for one so young, I had not yet experienced true pop perfection beyond the Beatles. Cheap Trick was a revelation! The enthusiasm and energy were unmistakable. Even to untrained ears, the songwriting and performance skills were unparalleled. After playing the whole album over again, I began frantically rifling through the glove box for more and was rewarded with Heaven Tonight. I still sometimes believe there is no greater pop song than “Surrender.” All summer long, I’d ask to hear those tapes so I could again feel the rush that went along with those songs. A couple of years later, I purchased my own prized copy of Dream Police specifically so I could experience it whenever I wanted.
The years went on and the excitement waned, as apparently was to be expected, other than the brief flutter in 1988 when I first heard the band’s cover of “Don’t Be Cruel” on the radio, I feared no one would ever again taste that first sweet power-pop treat I found in my cousin’s car. I lamented the loss of those euphoric feelings and resigned myself to the notion that nothing in adulthood or the current musical climate could match the eager elation and giddy glee of listening to “I Want You to Want Me”. I was wrong. 2006’s Rockford foreshadowed a return to form, but I’m exceedingly happy to say that with The Latest, Cheap Trick has finally fully recaptured that rush.
The opening track, “Sleep Forever”, should be the first clue that the fountain of youth has been found. Robin Zander’s voice sounds gloriously sweet and strong, as the song lulls the listener in preparation for the surprise of sheer power about to be unleashed. As they slam into a superb glam-pop cover of Slade’s “When the Lights Are Out”, one that also pointedly recalls “Elo Kiddies” from 1977’s Cheap Trick, it’s obvious that Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson, and Bun E. Carlos have been sipping from some restorative spring as well.
“Miss Tomorrow” follows, with a bit of a George Harrison vibe from Nielsen. It features one of those classic choruses, the kind of hook you can hang an entire album from. Not that they’d need to hang the whole album on this one song; there’s more, and it just keeps getting better.
The album’s lead single is “Sick Man of Europe”. The title is in a long tradition of self-referential nods, which are fun for fans to find. The song itself is a brief, but powerful punk-infused pounder built around Petersson’s bass line. “These Days” is a beautifully grand ballad, and an unexpected highlight among the early tracks. “Miracle”, though not as unexpected, with its evocations of John Lennon, is another standout among the higher-energy numbers.
“Everyday You Make Me Crazy” makes the most of its less than a minute and a half length by using every second to make you smile and sing along. “California Girl” is, as its title might imply, a perfect summer song with a bit of vintage rockabilly, and more self-referential trivia, in its roots. “Everybody Knows” and “Alive” are great examples of the definitive Cheap Trick sound. “Everybody Knows” is a Zander-penned tune arranged with lush layers, brimming with Beatle-esque harmonies, completed with haunting, lost-at-sea imagery. “Alive” is instantly recognizable as a Cheap Trick song, thanks mainly to the propulsive cymbals of Carlos and Nielsen’s tight, bright bursts of guitar.
“Times of Our Lives” brings out yet another hook-laden sing-along gem. “Closer, the Ballad of Burt and Linda” revisits the band’s lovely layered harmony vocals once more before the album’s actual closer. “Smile” is a little saccharine as a closing ballad, but it has a gorgeously soaring melody that more than saves it from becoming too cloying.
If I had to voice one complaint about Cheap Trick’s The Latest, it might be that pairing two slower ballads at the end of the album risks draining some of the potency gathered earlier by the rockers. But that’s hardly even worth mentioning when the album has so much momentum to spare. If I had to voice a second complaint… well, I couldn’t. I haven’t got one. The Latest is just about as perfect as pop music can get. What a rush!
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// Notes from the Road
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