Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: AC/DC
- Album: Stiff Upper Lip
- Year of Release: 2000
- Country: Australia
- Label: Columbia
- Format: Digipack
- Catalogue Number: 8869708290 2
Easing into their new album-releasing cadence of twice per decade, Stiff Upper Lip hit the stores 5 years after the excellent Ballbreaker completed AC/DC’s reconquering of the rock ‘n’ roll throne, after something of a fallow creative period in the wake of the band’s biggest-selling albums at the dawn of the 1980s. Perhaps in the spirit of the freedom afforded by their now perpetual position as one of music’s true behemoths, with nothing left to prove, Stiff Upper Lip is the sound of a band with the shackles off, simply having fun and kicking out the jams. As such, in many respects it is beguilingly listenable, eschewing the workmanlike toil of Fly On The Wall for something less forced and undoubtedly more natural, and even a little mischievous. This exuberence comes at a price though, with a set of songs that lacks the focus, and fails to really coalesce around any single landmark song or moment that defines this particular album.
It’s not a novel or original observation, but not for the first time in their career, AC/DC have produced a front-loaded album, which commences with a huge amount of energy and dynamism, before ultimately running out of steam, amidst a combination of slightly tiresome self-plagiarism and misconceived experiments. The opening title-track, as ever, is brilliant; exhibiting a gloriously oxymoronic tight looseess in its blues riffing, and even raising a smile with the quite ridiculous double-entendre of the title and lyrics. AC/DC are sometimes guilty of obviously trying too hard to simultaneously shock and amuse with their penchant for crass ribaldry, but with ‘Stiff Upper Lip’, they pitch it absolutely right. As Brian Johnson delivers the line “I shoot from the hip, I was born with a…”, and pauses, one can imagine the delight on the sweat-encrusted faces of the band on the live stage, dry ice partially obscuring an oversized bronze-coloured statue of Angus Young in iconic pose lit by spotlights, as the audience draws collective breath before roaring the pay-off as one: “STIFF UPPER LIP!” It’s not big, and it’s certainly not clever, but in its embracing of the sheer ridiculousness of big, dumb rock ‘n’ roll, it is a lot of fun.
Across the rest of what is a fundamentally uneven record, AC/DC gradually work their way through most of their usual modes of composition, but with slightly lacklustre results. Looking for uptempo rockers, boasting the Young brothers’ trademark clipped Rolling Stones-esque riffage and shoutalong choruses? The song you’re after is ‘All Screwed Up’, which is mostly very good, although undermined by a facile and feeble chorus that recalls the worst moments of Blow Up Your Video. Searching for a positively louche, but very slightly pedestrian boogie which still delights with an unexpected modulation in the pre-chorus? ‘Meltdown’ is the one for you, this time happily boasting a more sophisticated and memorable vocal melody. In the mood for a frankly trite and lightweight 12-bar workout that goes nowhere, with vapid lyrical content that would only have improved the album had it been wiped from the master tapes? Good news – ‘Can’t Stand Still’ has got you covered.
Outside of the predictable though, there are a handful of more interesting tracks that ultimately save the album from ignominy. ‘Come And Get It’ really lets a sinuous ZZ Top-style riff breathe, and is a rich and nourishing treat, and the almost surf-rock ‘I Feel Safe In New York City’ walks the tightrope between the opposing cliff-faces of unbearable novelty and marvellous curiosity and thankfully makes it to the other side remarkably unscathed. Of course, a year after the album’s release, it was easy to project new meaning onto a song with such a title. Although the pre-9/11 interviews given by AC/DC demonstrate that it was always intended to represent the duality of genuinely feeling comfortable in the Big Apple, but also that the very reason for this comfort was the ‘dangerous’ nature shared by both band and city, the song now exudes a triumphant and steadfast rock ‘n’ roll spirit, a tribute to resurgent humanity. Best of all, despite a title straight from the random AC/DC song-title generator, is ‘Can’t Stop Rock ‘N’ Roll’, which shows that the band haven’t completely lost touch with their more modern counterparts, suggesting Soundgarden at their most melodic jamming Highway To Hell, and in some ways it’s a shame that the album in its entirety didn’t explore this sound more fully, is it could have been surprisingly successful.
Stiff Upper Lip is an album that AC/DC have more than earned the right to make. It’s not brilliant, but it’s better than the somewhat dour albums that they laboured over prior to the return of Phil Rudd behind the drums, and it’s difficult not to find some pleasure in the obvious joy that the band seemingly took in making a record that at times pays homage to their roots, as children of 1960s blues and rock ‘n’ roll. However, it is also a valid to note that ultimately AC/DC on record actually produce their best work with the guiding hand of an outside producer helping to channel the band’s ideas into a cohesive whole, as Mutt Lange and Rick Rubin have both demonstrated at different points in the band’s career. The albums that bookend this particular effort both show that AC/DC are far from spent as a creative force, and this is perhaps best viewed as a necessary step from one to the other, to be revisited occasionally if not obsessed over.