Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: Aerosmith
- Album: Done With Mirrors
- Year of Release: 1985
- Country: USA
- Label: Geffen
- Format: Jewelcase CD
- Catalogue Number: GFLD 19052
1985 saw Aerosmith reach a crossroads, Joe Perry having returned to reunite the original line-up, and the band as a whole making a partially successful effort to put the substance abuse that had derailed their career during the previous decade behind them. And, a little like Robert Johnson’s infamous and apocryphal satanic agreement decades prior, it’s clear that Aerosmith did their own deal with the devil to commence a resurgence that would see them exceed the success of the halcyon days of the 1970s. Done With Mirrors itself would not prove to be the album that put them back on the top of the rock ‘n’ roll pile, riddled as it is with flaws and an unfortunate lack of memorable songs, but the transition to the slicker, more pop-oriented sound that they would more fully develop on the albums that immediately followed is clearly audible, and as a result one senses that this stepping stone was a necessary one for the band, a way of working out the creases and revitalising the working relationship between Tyler and Perry, the key songwriters and emotional heart of the band.
Underscoring the sense of rebirth and renewal that is embodied by Done With Mirrors, Aerosmith found themselves on a new label (Geffen, who would surely be congratulating themselves on their foresight 12 months’ later as Run DMC scored an enormous crossover hit with ‘Walk This Way’), and also holed up in a studio with Ted Templeman, rather than their long-time associate Jack Douglas. Douglas had been intimately involved with almost everything the band had released, classic and less-than-classic, since their self-titled debut, but clearly both parties felt that the time had come for a change. Templeman came with quite the pedigree, most notably having produced the first two Van Halen records, but it was not to be a productive partnership. Done With Mirrors fails to capture the kind of organic feel that ensures that Aerosmith’s best material leaps from the speakers with such vibrancy on their earlier records. Instead, the album is sonically and compositionally an awkward compromise that combines occasionally raw and powerful, but more often anaemic sounding guitars, with a hint of the slicker radio-friendly sound that was gaining traction in the contemporary rock scene of the time. Although the band would sound far more convincing a few years later when they fully embraced everything that state of the art production could offer, Done With Mirrors betrays some uncertainty about how the band should sound in 1985, and the end result suffers accordingly.
This compromise is evident from the very first track, ‘Let The Music Do The Talking’. The quality of the music itself is not in doubt – it is by some distance the best thing on the album. It was not, however, composed for Done With Mirrors. The song had in fact been released by Joe Perry’s solo venture, The Joe Perry Project, 5 years earlier, a venture that he had embarked upon on leaving Aerosmith part way through the recording of Night In The Ruts. It’s not clear whether the obvious excellence of a song that had passed under the radar with little fanfare simply lead to its resuscitation by the band, or whether it was a gesture of reconciliation to feature a Perry contribution so prominently as the lead-off track. A less charitable interpretation might be that Aerosmith were aware that they were not overburdened by great songs this time round, and rescuing this track from obscurity was ultimately just the expedient thing to do. An additional factor may also have been that it enabled the band to make a clear statement about how they wish their reunification to be perceived, suggesting an inflated level of confidence in the musical output that they were asking to be judged on. This confidence looks a little misplaced by the conclusion of Done With Mirrors, but based on the opening track alone, the band were right to feel optimistic.
‘Let The Music Do The Talking’ employs a variation of the admittedly well-worn AC/DC ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ riff, itself directly inspired by Chuck Berry, although this is less plagiarism and more a reflection of the relatively limited options available to bands who continually mine the pentatonic blues scale for inspiration. Joey Kramer’s pounding four on the floor rhythms drive the band forward with growing momentum, which is maintained through a fantastic chorus, which cleverly inverts the standard call and response guitar and vocal interplay, with the vocal line this time answering a thrilling guitar lick, showcasing Perry’s never less than listenable slide playing. In all honesty though, it’s inferior to the original version, lacking a little of the energy and intensity evident on the 1980 release, but in the context of an album generally lacking in fully realised songs, it is a more than adequate start.
Much of the rest of the album takes it’s cue from the sound of the first track – serviceable rockers, but little sign of the divine inspiration that once elevated the band above the chasing pack. Too often, a perfectly acceptable musical idea is forced to carry the burden of the entire song, which lacks either an ingenious hook to implant the song deep in the listener’s subconscious, or the kind of musical development that holds the attention once the lustre of the initial idea is dulled by repetition. ‘My Fist Your Face’, ‘Shame On You’ and ‘Shela’ all show that the cause is not lost, but it’s certainly been misplaced by a band whose short-term memory is understandably not what it once was. The chorus of the first of this trio shows a glimpse of what the band are capable of when operating at full power, and the Living Colour-style funky groove displayed on the second is a joy to behold – there’s something simply unimpeachable about a sparse riff built on a rhythm section operating in lockstep, leaving space for a lone snare to mark each off-beat with a crisp crack, that will never feel stale, but sadly the song as a whole feels a little aimless.
Outside of the odd burst of concerted riffery, it’s also clear at this point that the band have made a conscious decision to make a clean break from the fire and brimstone of their early work, in favour of slicker, poppier sonics. The overall lack of quality song-writing prevents the band from successfully transitioning their sound this time round, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that the band realised this once the finished product had been released, succumbing (not unlike their peers Bon Jovi and Alice Cooper at the same time) to the lure of collaboration with external songwriters by their next album, the not uncoincidentally hugely successful Permanent Vacation. This is no more apparent than on the uptempo ‘Gypsy Boots’, which has all of the raw ingredients of an aggressive rager in the same mould as ‘Toys In The Attic’ or ‘Back In The Saddle’, but is sadly emasculated by a production that smooths the raw edges a little too enthusiastically. A little friction has always been central to the Aerosmith sound and personality, and it’s not hard to imagine a more raucous and ramshackle version of this song which would have surpassed the more fun, but less magical version that they end up with on Done With Mirrors.
The majority of the record is perfectly competent mainstream rock that fails to solicit an especially strong emotional reaction, but there is one exception to this. Unfortunately, it is not a lone lost classic in the mould of ‘Joanie’s Butterfly’, which so delightfully adorned Rock In A Hard Place. Instead, it is a song so awful that it is almost amusingly dire. Musically, ‘The Reason A Dog’ is unremarkable, a mid-tempo dirge that has fingers reaching for the ‘Skip’ button, but lyrically it is utterly risible. Based around the faux-profound line “The reason a dog has so many friends / He wags his tail instead of his tongue”, the mental image of just how satisfied with himself Steven Tyler must at the belief that he had discovered some kind of novel and poetic insight into the human condition is excruciating. The reality of course, is that this is a song which incorporates the lyrical equivalent of your distant relative posting cliched homilies on their social media, just before they finish stencilling ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ on their living room wall. Despite the cringeworthy nature of they lyrics, it is possible that the song still could have worked, had it been performed with a modicum of playfulness, but, save admittedly for a blissful keyboard-driven bridge section, we’re wading through treacle here.
In common with even some of their better work, the album runs out of steam long before the final notes fade. ‘She’s On Fire’ is a genuinely good rootsy acoustic blues, oddly reminiscent of Alice Of Chains’ work on Jar Of Flies and Sap, but the original closing track ‘The Hop’ is a basic 12-bar which flogs the dead horse of a stock riff until it’s no more than dust. As if realising that this breaks the long-standing Aerosmith tradition of rounding things out with a Steven Tyler piano-led composition, the CD release nudges the world back on to its axis with the addition of ‘Darkness’. In contrast with the numerous lacklustre attempts at re-writing the ageless ‘Dream On’ that litter previous albums, this is surprisingly and unusually good, intriguing chord voicings and a strong vocal performance embellishing a theatrical rock opera that adds a layer of gloss to the album that is sorely needed.
Despite its enumerated flaws, Done With Mirrors is an important album for Aerosmith, bringing the original line-up back together, and laying the groundwork for the huge commercial success that would sustain them for the next quarter of a century, but it is more important than it is enjoyable. The predominant feel is of half-formed ideas cobbled together into semi-listenable songs, and paradoxically it is almost if simultaneously the band have spent both too much and not enough time on the recording. The overall production and mix strips away the intensity and spontaneity that characterise Aerosmith at their best, but there is a lack of laser-like focus on the kind of songcraft that is a pre-requisite of a more pop-oriented direction. A huge part of the blame must be attributed to the lazy vocal melodies that rarely coalesce into the kind of memorable motifs and confident phrases that are needed to set each song apart – it’s no coincidence that when the band really get their shit together a couple of years later, single after stratospheric single is the result of the kind of attention to detail with respect to the vocals that is only infrequently apparent here. Also absent, is any kind of joie de vivre, which could just about carry the sub-par material, a critical problem for a band that has previously been the soundtrack to the hedonism of millions of fans. Instead, it’s as much of a chore getting through the album as one imagines it must have been making it in the first place. There is arguably a good album somewhere in here, and perhaps some of the better ideas could’ve been repurposed by a resurgent band had they held them back for the next album, but it’s hard to consider the end result of Done With Mirrors as anything other than a mild disappointment.