It’s hard to listen to an album by a dead rock star and not feel a sense of morbid curiosity compelling you to read the lyrics and look for the ironies. On Michael Hutchence’s eponymously titled solo album, it’s not a disappointing pastime. “Saw a million pieces/ Of the shape I’m in/ Hanging from a chandelier.” (Even though he hung himself in a closet) “And I would catch you/ I would catch your fall/ I just wanna slide away and come alive again.” (The first two lines sung by U2’s Bono, who finished the vocal tracks on this song, the last line sung by Hutchence himself) Albums like this can often dwell on our sick fascination, but thankfully this album is so much more.
There’s no doubt in the world that Michael Hutchence’s suicide was a pity. No matter how you may feel about them personally, it is undeniable that INXS put themselves on the musical map irrevocably with 1987’s Kick, driven in no small part by Michael Hutchence’s strong voice and persona. He’s arguably one of the great voices of the old alternative/modern/college rock scene, and he’s possibly one of the great voices of rock music, period. Songs like “Devil Inside,” “New Sensation,” “Never Tear Us Apart,” and “Need You Tonight/Mediate” are destined to be classic rock songs of the future.
Combined with a strange, tabloid-saturated suicide story in 1997, Michael Hutchence’s legacy is now forever engrained in the rock and roll tragedy archetype that has sustained the infamy of countless other legends. Therefore, releasing a posthumous album, and more than that, but a posthumous solo release, takes on a lot of added weight. This isn’t the same as Sublime releasing an entire catalog of music after Bradley Knowell died, this is the kind of project that can only result in one of two things: incredible success or complete blasphemy.
In honor of Hutchence’s memory, this piece is thankfully an incredible success.
Despite not having finished this album before his death, the arrangements and lyrics were complete and Hutchence had laid down the majority of the vocal tracks. Through the hard work of his original producers Andy Gill (Gang of Four) and Danny Saber (Black Grape), who worked with Hutchence and co-wrote and co-conceived the album initially, what would have been very similar to the final product is exquisitely crafted.
That might be my only complaint with this disc: that it is almost over-produced. But this is pop music we’re dealing with, and sometimes technical is the goal. At any rate, the heavy production is obviously due to the fact that the producers knew they had to come up with a worthy product in the wake of Hutchence’s death.
All the press that has accompanied this disc make mention of the fact that it was Hutchence’s strong desire to break away from the music of INXS and explore new territory, and he pulled it off. It’s hard to listen to anything Hutchence does without automatically thinking of INXS, but through some bold musical arrangements, he managed to develop and apply his signature vocal stylings to some decidedly different music.
Instead of the pop/rock of INXS’s core sound, this album has all the flavor of soul, R&B, techno-lite rhythms, and grinding guitar blended throughout the songs in uneven measurements, with a strong pop flavor and the traditional spice of Hutch’s sultry voice. The album’s opener, “Let Me Show You,” which features The Clash’s Joe Strummer as the vocal fill-in for spots that Hutchence hadn’t completed, opens as a straight forward pop-rock tune that, aside from a more guitar driven sound, might pass as an INXS tune. This is only deception, as the next track, “Possibilities,” changes direction completely and heads into a Portishead-like trip-hop territory.
Hutchence’s voice really lends itself to the soulful tunes on this album. The techno-funk of “Get On The Inside” and “A Straight Line” are stand-out examples here. The muted seductiveness of “Flesh and Blood” reminds you of the charisma that Hutchence exuded in life. On “Breathe,” a simple R&B beat gives way to crunchy guitars and Hutchence playing his cat-like voice around the empty spaces in the distortion heavy tune. Gill and Saber wisely put “Slide Away” at the end of this album, making the song an all too appropriate swan song for Hutchence, despite the fact that a good deal of the vocals are filled by Bono. The combination of the two distinct voices in a tightly woven pattern and lush lyrical content makes this a sad elegy for a lost star.
The only weak tracks on the album are luckily couched in the middle of the disc and, in and of themselves, are not bad tunes, but they seem to go back to familiar territory for Hutchence. The lyrically obtuse “She Flirts For England” could have been left off the disc entirely. In an unavoidable twist of irony, “Don’t Save Me From Myself,” gravitates back to an INXS sound that even a loose wa-wa pedal can’t prevent. You just wish someone had saved him from himself.
Unfortunately, other critics who have covered this disc have already touched on some of the thoughts that came to me as I listened to this disc, but they bear repeating here. In the end, the most unfortunate thing about this album is the fact that the face of pop may have changed so much since it was recorded that it will be unmarketable. This would be a terrible shame, considering that the blends of style make this a very modern sounding body of work. But Limp Bizkit it ain’t, if you know what I mean.
However, Michael Hutchence isn’t here to lament poor record sales or the fact that it might be difficult to cull a single off of this album (although my vote is cast for “Possibilities” and “Slide Away” as potential hits). The fact is, he’s gone and we are left with this small token of an example of his talents. He may always be known as that guy from INXS who the tabloids say died in a failed attempt at autoerotic asphyxiation, but if you take the time to listen to Michael Hutchence with an open ear, you might remember that he was a singer with a sexy, cocky, rock star charm who was indeed truly talented.