It’s a sign of modern rock’s dreary, lazy solipsism that so much of the press written about the Darkness focuses on the band’s supposedly satirical sense of humor. It’s as if because Justin Hawkins and Co. have more than a dash of wit and sass in the lyrics and a heaping dose of bravado in the music, myopic rock scribes assume that they don’t really mean it. That strange and perverse position has as much to do with the state of contemporary rock music as it does with The Darkness. After all, if most of today’s popular rock bands meant it, there’d be a lot fewer emo musicians and a lot more work for suicide counselors.
Sincerity is in criminally short supply these days, even in regards to bands routinely held up as paragons of integrity (as Noel Gallagher once said, “you don’t get to number one without sucking someone’s dick”). If it’s sincerity you’re looking for, skip past any rocker pretending to be ‘a regular guy’ as he jukes and jives in front of a stadium full of worshippers, or any band claiming devotion to simplicity as their techies scour the world looking for just the right vintage gear. The solution, curious readers, is to cast your eyes and feast your ears on One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back, The Darkness’s unabashedly grand, deliriously enjoyable new album. Simply put, rock and roll don’t get no realer as we hit the home stretch of the new millennium’s first decade.
Rock, I’m pretty sure, is supposed to be about transcendence. At its best, the music lifts you up and out of the quotidian indignities of everyday life: the orders, the rip-offs, the spills, the flab. Put on “Tutti Frutti” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Take Me Out” and all the bad stuff starts to melts away. As far as transcendence goes, The Darkness may not always succeed, but every song, every vocal overdub, every riff, every second on One Way Ticket to Hell… is designed for maximum uplift.
The album begins at the top of the Himalayas, with quasi-mystical chanting and pan flutes, and only gets higher from there as the sacred intro gives way to the profane sound of coke being cut and snorted. A multi-tracked guitar and cowbell then join together to help kick the title track into the stratosphere. From the first song on, the album is an orgy of crisp guitars, fist pumpin’ rhythm, infectious melody and miles of harmony. The Darkness have invited you to the party. Whether or not you have fun is your decision.
Permission to Land, the band’s 2003 debut, was itself a rock and roll monster, but Hawkins, along with his brother Dan on guitar, Ed Graham on drums, and new-comer Richie Edwards on bass, enlisted former Queen produced Roy Thomas Baker to ensure the new album went to 11. It turned out to be a wise choice — most of Ticket is edging towards 12. The attention to detail alone is astounding. Whether it’s the subtle echo drifting off of Hawkins’ voice on “Is It Just Me?”, the palm-muted guitars that propel “Dinner Lady Arms”, or the rollicking piano that adds another level of bawdiness to “Knockers”, the album was clearly put together with the enjoyment of you, the listener, in mind. Now there’s an idea!
As song titles like “Knockers” and “Bald” show, it would be disingenuous to say that The Darkness is a serious band. But there’s a difference between serious and sincere, and our crew of concave-cheeked Brits aren’t kidding around when it comes to making you smile. Too much work went into the album to think that the band is at all frivolous towards what they do. If anything, Ticket, with all its pomp and riffing-stance, is a more disciplined achievement than their star-making debut. The songs are better constructed, the vocals less reliant on falsetto novelty, the solos more cleverly wedded to the songs, and the sound richer and more alive than the often antiseptic feel of Permission to Land. Not everything works: “Girlfriend’s” meshing of boogie and disco gets mired in the cheap fromage the rest of the album does so well to avoid, and “English Country Garden” is little more than a simple and dainty Queen homage, but when it all works, as on the irresistible faux-Celtic rocker “Hazel Eyes”, The Darkness stand alone as purveyors of pure pop/rock pleasure.
Attempts to somehow diminish the achievement of The Darkness by marking them as satire come off as tired and obvious. Why does rock need to be raw and anxious to be taken seriously? It’s not as if pleasure and fantasy are simply meaningless trivialities. For The Darkness to make an album like One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back takes no small amount of guts in today’s alternately uber-serious and unter-fun musical landscape. Sure, they may be practicing an art that luminaries such as Night Ranger and Cinderella practiced twenty years ago, but the Darkness are better, skinnier and have more hair, and that’s not something to take lightly.