“Do one thing, do it well, and do it over and over again.”
AC/DC have followed that simple formula for more than 30 years and it has taken them, to paraphrase one of their early anthems, all the way to the top. They have sold more than 200 million albums worldwide, with Back in Black alone selling 42 million copies. Their new CD, Black Ice, figures to top the charts as well, despite being sold exclusively at WalMart and Sam’s Club.
Stephen King once said that his books were the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries. The same could be said for AC/DC; by virtue of their longevity and consistency, they have become a hard-rock version of comfort food. They are no longer the snarling, slightly menacing, possibly satanic youths that parents of the ’70s and ’80s didn’t want anywhere near their daughters. AC/DC is now the hard rock band your mother likes. And what’s wrong with that? To criticize them for not evolving or for never trying anything new is to completely miss the point. The world didn’t want New Coke and we don’t want AC/DC to change. Ever.
Thankfully, Black Ice continues in the same narrow vein of each of their previous albums. Producer Brendan O’Brien, best known for his work with Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, is the best fit for this band since “Mutt” Lange produced the back-to-back classics Highway to Hell and Back in Black. But the primary reason that Black Ice is AC/DC’s best album since Back in Black is the strength of the material. With eight years since 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip to craft hooks and melodies, Angus and Malcolm Young have delivered a strong set of 15 songs that includes at least three or four classic tracks. The American film director Howard Hawks once described a great movie as having “three great scenes and no bad ones”. By that criteria, AC/DC have delivered a great album.
The opener, “Rock N Roll Train”, is the band’s best single since 1990’s “Thunderstruck”. At 61, Brian Johnson’s vocals sound better than we could have expected and the Angus/Malcolm guitar crunch delivers that familiar comfort-food pleasure. Catchy background vocals, sounding a bit like a group of random soccer hooligans, liven up this track and several others.
“Big Jack”, which sounds like a top candidate for the second single, leaps out of the speakers with a bracing, elemental power that few bands can match. Listening to this song, one can almost hear the crowd shouting the chorus and see them pumping their fists in unison on the band’s world tour which kicks off later this month in the U.S. “Anything Goes”, another of the future classics, bounces along with an unusually glossy, modern-sounding pop sheen and a killer hook.
A few small surprises are sprinkled throughout the disc. Angus’ slide guitar on “Stormy May Day” sounds a bit like Houses of the Holy-era Led Zeppelin. Johnson varies his trademark high-pitched yowl and sings in a deeper register in a few places. And “Rock N Roll Dream”, while not an actual ballad, is toned down and somewhat introspective, reminiscent of the Bon Scott-era “Ride On”.
Okay, maybe Black Ice weakens a bit towards the end. Some critics are already sniping that the album is too long and would be better at a crisp 40 or 45 minutes. But the law of diminishing returns does not apply to AC/DC. At 55 minutes, Black Ice is still a full 20 minutes shorter than Metallica’s solid but bloated 2008 release, Death Magnetic. After an eight-year absence, I’m thankful even for the weaker songs such as “Decibel”, “Money Made”, and “She Likes Rock N Roll”. The latter track is nearly as generic as its title, but because their trademark sound and approach is so appealing, and because their reach never exceeds their grasp, AC/DC is virtually incapable of recording a bad song. They are all variations on the same small handful of themes — sex, booze, and rock ‘n’ roll — and the variance in quality from one track to another is minimal. If that bothers you, then this album is not for you. If entering a WalMart store violates your moral code, then skip it. The loss is yours.
In a postmodern age of irony and cynicism, of self-absorbed navel-gazing, when too many bands want to make vapid political statements and shallow social commentary, AC/DC reliably deliver the goods: solid blues-based rock ‘n’ roll that gets the blood pumping and the air guitar strumming. There may be better albums released this year, but there won’t be any that I play more frequently than Black Ice.