The buzz ahead of Fearless Love, Melissa Etheridge’s tenth studio album, was that the record would be Etheridge’s hardest-rocking album yet, a return to her rock and roll roots, and an homage of sorts to ‘70s rock heroes like Led Zeppelin and the Who. The album’s booklet photos feature Etheridge in full rock-babe poses, bashing out power chords on her guitar and throwing her hair—grown back to full metal-god glory—over her face.
A balls-out (so to speak) rock record at this stage of Etheridge’s career is an intriguing move. At 48, she certainly has plenty of rocking ahead of her; in fact, she’s looking and sounding as good as she has in some time, and her voice remains a gale-force instrument. Indeed, it does feel like the time for a change in direction to reestablish some momentum in Etheridge’s career for a genuine commercial, or at least critical, revival.
Etheridge is guaranteed decent sales figures due to the loyalty of her sizable core audience, and, subsequently, Etheridge has felt free to make whatever kind of album she wants, which has lately been devoted to exercises in intense self-reflection, autobiography, new-age psychology, and mystical explorations of the soul packaged in solid but forgettable songs. Her last proper studio album, 2007’s The Awakening, was a bloated affair that reached new depths of Etheridge’s self-indulgence, and despite some strong material, many of the melodies took a backseat to all that heavy introspection.
At this point, Etheridge’s personal life—her battle with breast cancer, her David Crosby-fathered children with wife Tammy Lynn Michaels, her public stance against California’s gay marriage ban, her advocacy of medical marijuana—began to overshadow her music, and there was a feeling that Etheridge’s spiritual upheavals were taking a toll on her art. These concerns reached a peak when Melissa took the stage at Live Earth, the climate-change-awareness concert in 2007, staring down the audience like a deranged pro-wrestler and launching into a long, rambling tribute to Al Gore. Some admired her unbridled passion, but others worried that her trip into gut-wrenching, soul-searching activism was taking her astray of the plot.
Fearless Love, thankfully, is not another concept album; instead it’s tied together by a commitment to loud guitars and drums, and in this way, Etheridge comes crashing back down to more solid ground. The title-cut and lead single, is a winner, for instance. Amid relentless toms and chiming guitar riffs, Etheridge delivers the kind of full-throttle singing and soaring chorus that made her famous. “If you can’t hold me now”, she sings, “you’ll never hold me again”, and it’s impossible not to think of Fearless Love as Etheridge’s divorce album: the announcement that she and Michaels were separating came just before the record’s release.
“Miss California” starts with an Aerosmith-style riff, and you’ll swear that’s Steven Tyler himself providing the opening scream. However, the song settles into a by-the-numbers thumper that never finds much of a memorable hook. A Prop 8 protest, “Miss California” is probably what Etheridge meant by calling the record a nod to Zeppelin, and indeed Robert Plant could do some serious damage over this groove, but he’d have to contend with a thicker wash of guitar-and-keyboard production overkill than he ever had to.
Of course, as much as British rock shaped Etheridge’s rock-and-roll heart, it’s Bruce Springsteen’s blueprint that she’s always carried like a hero’s code. Springsteen has lately provided a clinic about aging gracefully as a rocker, and at times Fearless Love echoes the thick sonics and straightforward song structures of Bruce’s recent Brendan O’Brien-produced records. One of the strongest tracks here is “Company”, for instance, which recalls Bruce’s “Working on a Dream” with its breezy, romantic chorus. Then again, Etheridge can’t write like Bruce (who can?), so songs like “The Wanting of You” and “Nervous” fall short, which means they end up sounding more like Bon Jovi than Springsteen, particularly when Bon Jovi was trying to outgrow glam-metal by writing heavy, serious rockers in the ‘00s.
As far as a full-on comeback album, Fearless Love‘s songs as a whole aren’t strong enough to make for a great rock album, due to a lack of indelible hooks, yes, but also because nothing here really boogies. It’s often impressively strident, but it’s not much fun. Moreover, it’s a monochromatic set that suffers from a lack of softer touches that might level out what is a fairly clamorous listen. Even the slower numbers at the end of the record are drowning in John Shanks’s buzzing guitar waves. The exception is “Gently We Row”, a song that reminds us that, while it’s gratifying to hear Etheridge sounding as red-blooded as she does on this album, there’s also a gentler heartland singer-songwriter here capable of once again extending her reach well beyond that of her ardent followers.