The Plan 9 from Outer Space-inspired sleeve art for Aerosmith’s 15th studio effort Music from Another Dimension! is a great pictorial representation of two commonly held beliefs about the band: one, they’re old, and two, even when they’re enjoyable, it’s not because their music is of immense quality. Given this is a fairly crude analogy, there are obvious differences. Whereas Plan 9‘s status as “the worst movie ever made” is legendary, the gold on Aerosmith’s Rock and Roll of Fame placard has lost some of its luster. After being inducted into the most prestigious of rock and roll institutions (the list is small, I imagine) in 2001 alongside the release of the so-so Just Push Play, Aerosmith released one more studio album, the surprisingly good but atrociously titled Honkin’ on Bobo. In taking a “rootsier” approach to their music, slanting heavily toward the blues side of their bluesy rock, they freshened up their sound without really changing much. As far as late-career moves go, it’s a substantially better one than trying to let the swagger of “Walk this Way” do all the work. Frankly, considering the median age of the five musicians involved, there’d have to be a lot of Metamucil purchased to sustain that kind of hip movement.
The above paragraph might suggest I’m one of the many who dislike Aerosmith, but it’s actually not the case. I’m a fan of Aerosmith, but at the same time I won’t make an attempt to paint a rosy picture of the later segment of their career. Records like Toys in the Attic and Rocks are tough to top, and the reason why is simple: they were vital works of rock and roll that were relevant to their time. Aerosmith did have some success with their run in the late ‘80s/early ‘90’s — especially in singles like “Rag Doll” and “Cryin’” — but in terms of legacy the band hit their peak in the ’70s.
But what this unfortunately means for Music from Another Dimension is that in the majority of cases, it’s probably unwise to pick up with a studio LP following a near ten-year drought, especially when the glory days have long since faded. The question of this album is the closest thing the music world has to the moral dilemma of euthanasia. It’s understandable for musicians who love what they do to continue trudging on, even when it’s clear that the new material can’t possibly match up to the old. However, tarnishing a legacy isn’t difficult to do: two options out of many include merely repeating old material without even taking the time to embellish upon it (see: Foreigner) or going on so many “Farewell” tours that the meaning of the word becomes as unintelligble as an aging vocalist (see: the Rolling Stones). At this point the act of continuing out one’s career becomes a form of suicide, or in the case of Foreigner a slow, painful self-immolation that’s only likely to fill the auditoriums of run-down casinos. One would be better off trying to become a hot sauce mogul.
The one thing Aerosmith have going for them, despite whatever cynics might say, is that they’re nowhere near that bad yet. Don’t get misled, though: almost everything on Music from Another Dimension! points to a serious decline. None of these songs have the punch that great Aerosmith tracks do. If opener “Love XXX” aims at porn-quality filth, it’s failing miserably; in the grand scheme of dirty Aerosmith songs (also known as: 90 percent of Aerosmith songs), it’s a Lifetime-worthy love scene. “Legendary Child,” ostensibly the son of the classic “Last Child”, could probably do with some wisdom from its predecessors. The collective tear ducts have been run too dry by “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (at least, if the box office numbers for Armageddon mean what I think they mean) for “What Could Have Been Love” to have any impact. And despite the popularity of “Cowboy Casanova”, Carrie Underwood is not the ideal person to sell a genuine duet with Steven Tyler (“Can’t Stop Lovin’ You”).
Aside from all of the individual missteps that make up Music from Another Dimension, the single most striking flaw comes in production quality. The sound of this record isn’t bad — i.e. the quality of the masters isn’t poor — but it sounds incredibly flat for a group that has a lot of grit in their style. Take Joe Perry’s guitar work, for example: though in the past his bluesy solos and use of slide guitar have been Aerosmith’s not-so-secret-weapon, here almost all of his riffs come off as clean, despite the fact that distortion is audible. Call it a paradox, call it weak production… either way, the bite that made Aerosmith’s classic material so memorable has now gone.
All of this creates a particularly troubling dilemma in terms of the “musical euthanasia” that seems to be necessary for Aerosmith. On one side of the scale, there’s the terrible choice of ending a career on a record like this one; on the other, the huge gamble of trying to rectify this wrong for a home-stretch comeback worthy of the musical history books. I would make the case for the former, but either way there’s not a great option, no solution that’s likely to appease everyone. That debate, however, doesn’t need to happen now. The important thing at this moment is for Aerosmith to actually recognize the problems inherent to the aging of a classic rock band, rather than pretending it’s possible to transplant the culture of the ’70s to now. The election day release of Music from Another Dimension! is all too fitting: like the sobering reality the Tea Party-massacred GOP now faces given their loss, Aerosmith must either get with the times or let their staunch conservatism get the best of them. Aerosmith may not have completely obliterated their stature as classic rock greats, but in the storied halls of rock and roll, Music from Another Dimension! resides in the geriatric wing.