A theme of death permeates the record, of having seen and done it all and being bored with this mortal coil. Rather than merely shuffling off it, though, Iggy and the Stooges are raging on their way down.
Whether you choose to view Ready to Die as the fifth Stooges album or the second album by Iggy and the Stooges, the element calling such a basic fact as the group’s name into question is clear. This is the first album released under “the Stooges” banner to not include Ron Asheton (AKA: Rock Action). Serving as guitarist on the debut and sophomore Stooges records, then demoted to bassist for the first to feature Iggy’s name before the rest of the band’s, then back to guitarist for the group’s underwhelming 2007 reunion record The Weirdness, Asheton was as crucial to the band’s sound — some would say more so — as their unhinged frontman’s vocals, misanthropic yet cocky lyrics and subversive stage presence. Beyond that, Asheton’s distorted and sloppy, yet in its somehow virtuosic, playing is incalculable in its influence in the lineage that followed the Detroit proto-punk outfit’s demise. Simply put, if Iggy is the trunk of punk rock’s family tree, Asheton’s guitar work is its roots, the first strand of DNA in the punk pedigree.
With Asheton’s death in 2008 at age 60, Iggy and brother Scott Asheton wisely recognized the Stooges’ name proper died with him. It didn’t take long for fans manning the rumor mill to churn out the grist that James Williamson, who took up Asheton’s six-string duties on 1973’s Raw Power, would again replace Asheton. In a weird and fortuitous alignment with their fans, Iggy and the remaining Asheton realized the only way any variation of the Stooges name could continue was if Williamson carried on with them. Thankfully, Williamson was up to the task, retaining the Stooges’ integrity in the process.
Whether it is Williamson’s presence or a desire to charge back in the wake of Asheton’s death — most likely a combination of the two — the resulting Ready to Die is one hell of an inspired record, a firestorm of pissy, vitriolic punk rock presented like a kick to the balls. No time is wasted, getting right to the good stuff with incendiary opener “Burn”. Scott Asheton lays into the drums with a heavy pounding, Mike Watt’s bass rumbles low, Williamson’s fingers race along guitar strings and Iggy’s nihilistic intonations hang above the proceedings from the vantage point of a disappointed deity. Throughout the 10-song album, adolescent snottiness is traded in for ragged outrage, the group’s mindset from the ‘60s of facing the future with indignant malaise evolved into a retrospect of bitter discontent. At 66 years old, Iggy in its shirtless glory still sings lyrics of tossed-off juvenilia with more panache than his age should allow, offering social commentary in acerbic simplicity. At other times, he shows he’s capable of strikingly moving observations and moments of introspection. Rather than merely back him, Williamson plays the electric guitar like a blowtorch cauterizing Iggy’s wounds, the guitarist and vocalist seeming to wage war between each other for dominance, Williamson’s shredded solos flaring up almost every time Iggy takes a breather.
A theme of death permeates the record, of having seen and done it all and being bored with this mortal coil. Rather than merely shuffling off it, though, Iggy and the Stooges are raging on their way down. Of course, it’s unavoidable to conclude Asheton’s death is what crafted this eye-to-eye meeting with mortality. If that’s the case, at least something good could come from his passing, forcing his survivors to step up their game and not simply regurgitate an uninspired, legacy-tarnishing record like The Weirdness. Instead of how it sounded with that mess, Iggy’s voice here has character rather being flat and spent. It is leathery and craggily one moment, boiling over with bile the next, all the while giving the listener the sensation of taking a rusty cart through some abandoned mineshaft.
The record’s title track most directly expresses the sentiment of facing Death’s scythe with a sledgehammer. Iggy laments the fleeting nature of life, all while embracing the relief of its end. Reflections like “This lonely skin / Is wearing thin / I’m a hangin’ judge / Of the world I’m in” are tempered with Iggy’s spiteful declaration of “I’m shooting for the sky / Because I’m ready to die." What better statement of frenzied, wild abandon is there? In “Sex and Money”, Iggy repeats the title as a period at the end of every other line, the message being that the initial appeal of something even as universal as those two conquests eventually loses its meaning. “I’m looking for a reason to live / Sex and money / I only have but two things to give / Sex and money," he sings in deadpan fashion with saxophonist Steve Mackay blaring notes about him, carnal pleasure and cash having become but tin gods. It’s a recurring theme, popping up elsewhere in the Ramones-esque “Job”, wherein Iggy directs his ire at consumerism, materialism and the symbiotic 9-to-5 monotony (“I got a job / I got a job / But it don’t pay shit / I got a job / I got a job / And I’m sick of it”). However, it’s dicey with this cut on whether the younger audience will accept this attempt to relate and give voice to their frustrations or will see it as pandering.
The record’s most divisive song also runs this gamble. “DD’s” is exactly about what it’s title suggests, and the shameless prurience of it makes it initially amusing, but on repeated listens, it comes across as simply puerile and stupid (“I’m on my knees / For those double D’s," Iggy moans). Some might find the novelty of the track charming for the fact Iggy is so unabashed in his paying homage to large breasts, but others will be inclined to view it as the definition of a throwaway. It certainly does interrupt the album’s flow, but on the other hand, it might be seen as some respite from the more desperate tunes, the breasts serving as touchstones for youthful reverie, a symbol to show that with Iggy, not all interests decrease with age. What there is no denying is that “DD’s” is the album’s catchiest and most upbeat tune, featuring the record’ second cameo from Mackay.
Iggy and the Stooges turn towards the sensitive with the songs capping each side. “Unfriendly World” features Williamson playing an acoustic country-blues melody, shackle-dragging rhythm present for an added effect. Iggy croons with the sandpaper pipes of Leonard Cohen, his vocals rich and comforting, his words coming from one who arrived at the other side not unscathed, but still drawing breath. “Birthday cards from years ago / These will kill you slow," he sings, addressing that sometimes fatal nostalgia. The tune’s sister song, “The Departed”, ends the album with the band at their most stripped down. Scott Asheton provides a military funeral-type drum pattern while Williamson plucks an acoustic guitar and Iggy offers up some borderline confessional poetry. “The life of the party’s gone / The guests still remain / Know they’ve stayed a little long," Iggy sings, and it’s not a reach to think it is Asheton in particular he’s memorializing. “I can’t feel / Nothing real / My lights are all burned out," he sings near the midsection, world-weary as he’s ever sounded.
Ready to Die is the reunion album (Iggy and) the Stooges deserve, washing away the bad taste of The Weirdness. It’s just a shame Ron Asheton couldn’t be part of it, at least physically, for without question, his presence is felt. For that reason, the album is part of his legacy as much as it is his surviving bandmates’.