Music

Adam Lambert: Trespassing

The one-time force of nature delivers his second disappointing album.


Adam Lambert

Trespassing

Label: RCA
US Release Date: 2012-05-15
UK Release Date: 2012-05-15
Amazon
iTunes

Let’s get something straight: Trespassing is not Adam Lambert’s “big gay dance-club album” (as one illustrious publication put it) any more than Savage Garden was Savage Garden’s big gay pop album or Songs from the West Coast was Elton John’s big gay roots album. With Trespassing, Lambert becomes the first out solo artist to score a number one album -- cigars all around! -- but queer identity barely shows up in the songs themselves. The pronouns are mostly “you”, and the innuendos pretty much top out at “straight jacket” and “Such a beautiful release / You inside of me”. Everything else -- ignoring “no trespassing” signs, partying all night, enjoying naked love -- is hedonism available any day of the week in Pink or Ke$ha songs, on classic rock radio or blues clubs or wherever. This isn’t a knock against the album; that’ll come in a minute. But taken at face value, Trespassing reads straight or gay: however you want it. Take the subject of “Kickin’ In”, the one who puts her shot glass down and asks for another round. If you hear her as a drag queen, you probably read about it on Twitter.

Screw Twitter. I’m too busy trying to figure out whether the drag queen's friend Eddie, who's got words that rhyme and a dirty mind, is some outdated Ed Lover reference.

Anyway, heard at face value, “Kickin’ In” is the best song here -- produced by Pharrell Williams in strutting MJ knockoff mode, with mysterious synth percussion that makes me laugh like his Britney jams did more than a decade ago. (Remember “Boys”? Now, don’t you think Glambert should cover it? Let’s start a petition.) Lambert sings in octaves, his party starter tenor laced with the menace of his impossibly clear falsetto. There’s a cool breakdown with a kaleidoscopic array of Glamberts leering and shouting, as though you’re viewing him through the bottom of an empty tumbler. Pharrell also produced the opener “Trespassing”, a funky march with handclaps and a bassline that swings like a Chic-y monkey. Speaking of Chic, guitar hero Nile Rogers shows up on “Shady”, a reasonably funky Lester Mendez production that inhabits the same freak-infested clubs as Ke$ha, with salacious vocal swoops out of the Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons”. These songs are all on the album’s first half, seven uptempo dance tunes ranging from really good to pretty good (“Cuckoo”, “Naked Love”) to forgettable (“Pop That Lock”, inexplicable second single “Never Close Our Eyes”). The kick drums stomp; the synths are state-of-the-charts; song lengths fill a narrow range from 3:00 to 4:08.

Here’s why I mention song lengths. Almost from the start of American Idol, fans and critics speculated about which contestant would use the show’s format to break molds and shift paradigms, or to rebel against the format itself. To date on Idol, only two contestants have fit the bill: Sanjaya Malakar, who demonstrated that the public has terrible taste, and Adam Lambert, who proved the opposite. Even Joshua Ledet, Season 11’s insanely talented gospel-soul screamer, fits the Idol mold: an attractive person singing a song well, usually in a way we’re accustomed to hearing it sung, and receiving a reward. In contrast, Lambert took over Season Eight, mentoring the other contestants, doling out his own rewards (“Mad World”) and punishments (“Ring of Fire”), and using the format to establish himself as the country’s most vital entertainer. Despite his second-place finish, he owned the show; he was bigger than the Simons. (Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield: “Having Adam around seems to cheer everybody up, including the other singers, who know the pressure's off. Hell, even Simon looks happy.”) If Season Eight -- or Idol itself -- is remembered artistically centuries from now, it’ll be for Glambert’s performances.

After the season ended, the question -- the worry -- became, “How does he translate this persona into a recording career?” Idol gave Lambert the gift of constraints; he kept his songs to a certain length so the producers wouldn’t give him the stiletto boot, because what fun would that’ve been? He sang MJ and Johnny Cash because he had to, upending audience expectations in the process. On-stage, Lambert was a big-hearted rebel, but the show’s narrow parameters gave him something to rebel against. As my wife feverishly downloaded his singles, there was something disappointing about hearing “Black or White” apart from the Idol stage -- it simply sounded like a really good singer’s cover version, but not like the world historical chokehold of the previous night.

So unfortunately, the answer to that worried question remains, “He hasn’t figured it out yet”. Like his first album For Your Entertainment, Trespassing disappoints because it’s Lambert playing on pop’s terms and sometimes narrowing the terms unnecessarily. He hires the same big-name Top 40 writers and producers that everyone hires -- heck, even Entertainment featured pomp-rock guys from The Darkness and Muse alongside Max Martin and Shellback. His songs all run about the same length -- yes, pop singles are supposed to be short, but pop albums from Erasure to Big & Rich to Madonna have been unafraid to stretch out musically. Trespassing deviates from the big beat formula on its second ballad-heavy half, notably on the lite industrial groove of “Chokehold” and the Wainwright-y falsetto warbling in “Outlaws of Love”. But “Outlaws”, like its neighbors in Ballad Land, isn’t much of a song. The second half gets pretty dispiriting, especially if you shell out for the version with three “bonus” tracks, which are like ending the school year with some bonus homework.

Most worryingly, for all their talk of trespass and release and lock-popping, Glambert’s songs unleash very little Glambert. On the solemn ballad “Underneath”, Lambert sings, “Underneath, under my skin / Underneath the depths of my sin / Look at me, now do you see?” Well, no actually, we don’t. Not that Lambert needs to provide a blow-by-blow account of his “sin”, but most of his lyrics amount to workmanlike clichés. “Tower of Babel has fallen down again”; “Let’s just stay awake until we grow older”; “I’m swingin’ off of my hinges / I’m cocked and I’m ready to go” -- these ideas have been expressed better elsewhere and could’ve been expressed by anyone. I should also point out that the Five Man Electrical Band came up with more creative “No Trespassing” signs.

So while I’m rooting for the guy and his amazingly versatile screeches, he still doesn’t know how to make pop music work for him, rather than the other way around. Other people do. Take the big gay examples from up top. Elton John’s “Original Sin” and Savage Garden’s “Santa Monica” are both strange and beautiful songs that become more poignant if you hear them as gay monologues. Lambert’s songs don’t work that way -- “Outlaws”, his closest contender, is too flatly written to achieve strangeness, beauty, or poignancy. But it’s not just old music that’s showing him up. This year in mainstream pop, fun., Graffiti6, and Dev have all packed their albums and singles with more weirdo personality than Glambert’s self-proclaimed “world of truth”. Whether his songs would improve with more queer self-expression is anyone’s guess, but he clearly needs to do something.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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