Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: Aerosmith
- Album: Permanent Vacation
- Year of Release: 1987
- Country: USA
- Label: Geffen
- Format: Jewelcase CD
- Catalogue Number: 924 162-2
Done With Mirrors was supposed to be Aerosmith’s glorious comeback album, but due to the generally poor quality of the songwriting, and an insipid production, it fell a little flat with fans and critics alike, excluding a small core of contrarian diehards, who are fond of claiming that it was the last great Aerosmith album. The band’s second attempt, however, was everything the band wanted it to be. And failure was not an option. Thrust back into the zeitgeist by Run-DMC’s immensely popular version of ‘Walk This Way’, ably assisted by a collaborative video that was beamed directly into the homes of millions via the hugely-influential MTV, it was now or never for the Toxic Twins and the rest of their errant siblings. A Done With Mirrors sequel would likely hasten the band’s decline, possibly terminally, but if they were able to get finally clean and grasp the nettle, a clear opportunity presented itself to capitalise on their new-found popularity and a rabidly consumerist market for popular culture. So successfully did the band seize the day, that if you have one single Aerosmith album in your collection, there is a better than even chance that this album reads Permanent Vacation down the spine. Part of its success undoubtedly arises from the fact that the band agreed under pressure from their label (presumably holding all of the aces in that particular confrontation given the result of leaving the band to their own devices a couple of years earlier) to work with external songwriters, primarily Desmond Child and Jim Vallance, both among the most sought after collaborators in rock, given their track record of delivering huge hit singles for Bon Jovi, Kiss, and Alice Cooper.
Some might argue that it was at this point that the soul of Aerosmith was lost forever. Certainly it solidifies a real and permanent shift in the band’s sound that had been in development since Rock In A Hard Place, to something much slicker and poppier than the lean, mean and reckless days of the mid-70s. It also marks an apparent change in the power balance of the band, with the helm seemingly moving from Joe Perry to Steven Tyler, as the songs begin to rely more on the strength of the melodic and flamboyant delivery of Tyler’s vocal melodies, as opposed to the raw power of the guitars and rhythm section that had dominated Toys In The Attic and Rocks. Where once the band had graciously allowed Tyler one song per album to pursue his more eclectic proclivities; from Permanent Vacation onwards, the new emphasis enables Tyler to really spread his wings, and begin to dominate the band’s sound.
Regardless of any misgivings concerning the changes within the Aerosmith camp, it is difficult for any listener not to concede that, in stark contrast to the muted and at times almost apologetic sounds of Done With Mirrors, from the opening seconds of the intro to ‘Heart’s Done Time’, it is clear that this is An Event. The feedback gradually fades in, as if Joe Perry and Brad Whitford have just plugged their guitars into enormously powerful amps, and Joey Kramer’s drum roll announces a barnstorming blues riff which commences the album in the best possible way. Aerosmith sound utterly focussed and revitalised, the sharp and metallic guitars sound as good as they have ever sounded, and the confidence and swagger is such that any doubt over the musical direction are instantly eliminated. There have been false dawns before, but the factor that ensures that is not the case this time round is Tyler’s magnificent vocals, and the immediately memorable melodies that he imbues with such zest and élan. After a decade of bored and apparently uninterested performances, this is quite the rebirth, and a reminder of the wonderful vocal talent that the man possesses, and it is surely the brilliance of the soaring verse and chorus melodies that allow Tyler to really enjoy inhabiting his role once more. Perhaps there is something a little artificial about Aerosmith as a band employing the outside help that they do on Permanent Vacation, but the passion and enthusiasm that Tyler displays throughout the album simply cannot be faked.
The album is littered with excellent songwriting, although throughout it is charting a treacherous course through the narrow channel which separates triumphant, exuberant rock ‘n’ roll from its close relative, cheesy pop-rock. On the right side of this waterway, and despite the dated guitar tone, is ‘Magic Touch’. Reminiscent of early Thunder, the snappy riffing is propelled by energetic drumming, and once more, the chorus is effortlessly infectious. The whole thing is brimming with a confidence that cannot help but convince even the most sceptical of mid-70s Aerosmith enthusiasts. Illustrating the result of straying to the wrong side of the graphene-thin line is the title track, faintly embarrassing sub-Ugly Kid Joe fare, complete with calypso steel drums hammering home in the most boneheaded way possible the subject matter of the song (“I really need it, really really need St Tropez”. The admittedly unforgettable chorus cannot rescue this holiday from hell.
While the album tracks are generally of a high standard, the album’s success was really built on the back of the singles, staples of classic rock radio to this day, and which showcase the various elements of the modern Aerosmith sound very effectively. ‘Rag Doll’ is a mid-tempo bluesy rocker, which employs a simple, but captivating, blues lick as a recurring leitmotif throughout the track, coupled with an understated Tyler vocal, which gradually builds in intensity as the song develops, constructing layers of woodwind and horns on top of the band’s admirably loose jam. It is possibly slightly pedestrian, but the way in which the song moves seamlessly through its various sections, every note perfectly judged, is emblematic of the new-found conscientious approach to composition, in which the band and their songwriting partners work hard to optimise the impact of every component of the arrangement – nothing is wasted, everything has a purpose. The most delightful example of this is actually found in the outro, as the band and horns fall away from Tyler’s improvisational scatting, leaving him accompanied only by a lone clarinet, at which point the listener realises that the clarinet line was there all the time, inseparable from a powerful ensemble performance, but essential to the overall feel of the song.
Even more celebrated is Dude (Looks Like A Lady), which it is now difficult to hear without picturing Robin Williams, dressed as Mrs Doubtfire, flamboyantly hoovering and air guitaring his way around his family’s house. Again, it’s undeniably middle of the road fare, lacking the exhilaration of the band’s younger incarnation, but it’s also a supremely well-constructed song, not dissimilar to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’, and containing a satisfyingly blazing Joe Perry guitar solo. Given some of the band’s overly misogynistic lyrics in the past, and overlooking it’s somewhat clumsy execution, Tyler’s ambiguous reaction to what appears to be transsexual experimentation is a pleasing development. Again, it’s the minor details which indicate the level of thought that has been poured into the creation of the album – the drum fill and harmonised vocal accent on the off-beat that precedes the final chorus is something that it’s hard to imagine early 80s Aerosmith would have bothered with.
The final single is surely the most divisive. While ballads have long been a part of the Aerosmith sound, dating right back to their debut’s majestic ‘Dream On’, ‘Angel’ marks their first foray into true power ballad territory. As we know, this is territory that they have violated on numerous subsequent incursions, but ‘Angel’ is their original, and arguably best, attempt at a simultaneously much-reviled and much-loved subset of the hard rock genre. The appeal of the power ballad is a mysterious thing. Conventional rock often relies on the delight of the unexpected – a leftfield note or chord that spins the melody off in a novel and ingenious direction, or even a singular tone, rhythm or lyrical phrase that triggers repeated listening. On the other hand, much like a Hollywood blockbuster, the power ballad relies on manipulating the listener’s emotions through a series of tropes that are totally expected, and succeeds in spite of the fact that all parties know exactly what is coming. It’s not perhaps true, empathetic emotion, but a kind of ersatz emotion that is nevertheless somehow cathartic to momentarily experience, despite the level of self-consciousness that accompanies it. The power ballad stands and falls on the execution of an agreed formula, and it is in the execution that ‘Angel’ really flies. It is musically cheesy, and thematically sappy, but the way in which it moves so deftly from the initial wall of guitars, to the twinkling piano supporting a delicate minor key vocal, to huge power chords heralding an unbearably catchy, string-laden chorus, before modulation into an emotional bridge section, finally arriving at the tasteful, slightly overdriven tone of the perfectly pitched guitar solo, means that it is impossible not to marvel at what the band have created. ‘Angel’ could of course have been recorded by Bon Jovi, Journey, Whitesnake, or any number of contemporaneous one hit wonder also-rans, but the fact remains that it represents an almost flawless example of a specific sound, even as the listener is aware of almost every element of the song being a coldly calculated decision, intentionally taken orchestrate a very specific response.
In truth, away from the singles, there is some filler here. ‘St John’ is an oddity – a theatrical soul track, combining a finger-clicking rhythm track with stacked Michael Jackson-esque harmonies and a walking bassline. The hooky nature of the vocals ensure that it is insidiously memorable, but the faint whiff of novelty is unpleasant. The 60s R&B goes funk pastiche of ‘Girl Keeps Coming Apart’ has plenty of vigour, and is breezy enough, but ultimately lacking in real substance. Possibly worst of all is the Beatles cover ‘I’m Down’. It’s a perfectly serviceable version of what is far from a great Beatles track, and may have been a appropriate fit on an earlier album, but surrounded by the slick pop-rock of the rest of the album, it is incongruous and jarring. It is even more odd when one considers the numerous alternatives available that would be a more sympathetic match to the rest of the track-listing. Instead, we are left with a song that would have been better utilised as a B-side, and which contributes to an underwhelming conclusion to a good album. The choice of ‘The Movie’ as the closing track is also a strange one. A vaguely psychedelic instrumental, it has a Jane’s Addiction / Faith No More feel, and despite the fact that it is more than competently executed, as the closing statement, it’s somewhat limp.
Still, the final three tracks should not detract from what is overall a good album made by a reinvigorated band, which stands up to scrutiny even deprived of the comforting context of the 1980s rock scene that it helped to define. It is fair to say that a fan’s response to Permanent Vacation will likely be defined by the degree of their fondness for the band’s earlier work, and their tolerance for 80s rock cliches. But I would suggest that those who dismiss it on the basis of its AOR sonics are missing out on the first Aerosmith album in many a year that is delivered with the kind of unassailable self-confidence and swagger that distinguished the likes of Rocks and Get Your Wings. If numerous under-performing Aerosmith albums have foundered on formulaic songwriting and lazy performance, Permanent Vacation fixes these issues, albeit at the cost of a certain amount of the thrill and spontaneity that makes the best rock ‘n’ roll so exciting. This is the sound of a mature band delivering hooks a-plenty, and singalong choruses in abundance, across a strong and enjoyable rock album, which is utterly deserving of the enormous success that it achieved.