The very first thing Ed Kowalczyk gives us on Alive, his first solo effort, is a driving metaphor, squeezed like an orange and twisted like a lemon. The song is called “Drive”, after all, and as such, the chorus must consist entirely of such a metaphor. Here it goes:
Here I am standing inside your love
Like a child falling asleep at the wheel
Of my life, and letting you drive
I’m letting you drive
Here I am right where I belong
On the shoulder, handing off the keys
Close my eyes, and letting you drive
I’m letting you drive
In capable hands, a songwriter can get some solid mileage out of a driving metaphor. Michael Stipe did (“Drive”), Jakob Dylan did (“One Headlight”), hell, the Beatles did (yes, “Drive My Car”). Kowalczyk’s hands, it seems, are no longer capable of crafting this sort of metaphor into anything meaningful, much less intelligible. Ignoring for a second the confusion of tense that appears in the second half of the refrain (which admittedly only happens once, at the end of the song), the primary, repeated refrain can’t even decide whether the act of handing over the wheel is intentional or not. “Falling asleep at the wheel” implies an unconscious, accidental sort of ceding of responsibility, even as “letting you drive” and the later “handing off the keys” indicate trust and a reasoned decision. Which is it? Is it both? Is it neither? Why would a child be at the wheel anyway?
And even amongst all of this confusion, this metaphor choked to the point of meaninglessness, Kowalczyk finds the time to insult our intelligence with the words “of my life”. Those words appear just in case the metaphor was flying over his listener’s heads, you see.
Given Kowalczyk’s history as a songwriter, it’s easy to give him the benefit of the doubt. As the lead vocalist of Live, Kowalczyk’s righteous fury and earnest, searching spirit earned the band a devoted group of fans left behind by Seattle’s grime. “Lightning Crashes” is one of the few lasting anthems of the ’90s, a “Circle of Life”-style parable that actually comes across as sincere and authentic thanks largely to the vivid imagery of Kowalczyk’s lyrics.
The benefit of the doubt should allow us to see “Drive” as an aberration. And we do, until “Drink (Everlasting Love)” arrives with a refrain that is every bit as awful as “Drive”:
Now I’ll drink you like water
Drink you like freedom
Drink you like the nectar that falls from Eden
Drink you like water
Drink you like the everlasting love
So…you drink freedom? You drink “everlasting love”? Is Eden in the sky? Why is nectar falling from it?
What in God’s name is Kowalczyk talking about?
This ridiculousness, it just keeps happening. “In Your Light” is the requisite ode to his children, a trick he pulled off on Live’s “Heaven” by putting his kids in a chorus that swooped and soared. It starts off just fine, personal and a little bit touching, but eventually he’s singing about mountains and valleys and he loses us. In “Rome”, he gives up on lyrics altogether for the chorus, content to sing “oh oh ohohoh” over and over again, before pronouncing that “this love will shine on”. “Stand” turns the central theme of the best track on 1991’s Mental Jewelry (that would be “The Beauty of Gray”) into a trite exercise in cliché (“What are we fighting for?” and “Stand tall with me!” both appear over and over in the song), ditching the intensity and earnestness of youth for know-it-all treacle.
Alive‘s lead single (and best song) “Grace” is being pushed to Christian Rock Radio, which is understandable — while Jesus Christ is never specifically namechecked on the album in another hollow attempt at alienating nobody, it’s clear that he’s the inspiration for much of it. This is not something to hold against it. Rather, it’s unfortunate that it falls into so many of the pitfalls associated with the genre. Rather than being an exciting album from an established artist with the potential to push the bounds of the genre beyond the overpowering sentiment and preachiness that genre is so associated with, Kowalczyk has fallen into every single one of its weaknesses.
Why so much time on the lyrics? Because it sounds like Live. It sounds like the worst parts of Live. It sounds like musicians who can actually play trapped in the bounds of ’90s-era AOR. There’s just not much to talk about.
There’s nothing fun about this. There’s nothing fun about tearing down an artist that once commanded so much respect, an artist who once seemed above the drama and the angst that rock music was mired in. If Alive is truly a rebirth for Kowalczyk, if he truly believes what he’s saying and he’s moved beyond the band he fronted for so many years, then good for him. Chalk this review up to a matter of taste. What it looks like, however, is an album whose title is a direct swipe at the band that made him, an album featuring an artist who refuses to be edited, an album that deals in a calculated sort of emotional manipulation that comes up short of its targets in every conceivable way.
This isn’t fun. It’s depressing.