Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: Aerosmith
- Album: Nine Lives
- Year of Release: 1997
- Country: USA
- Label: Columbia
- Format: Jewelcase CD
- Catalogue Number: COL 485020 3
Aerosmith’s twelfth album, Nine Lives, saw them back on original label Columbia, presumably keen to get in on some of the sweet multi-platinum action that they had missed out on since understandably failing to foresee the band’s incredible resurgence in popularity. It is appropriately titled – as well as surviving years of substance abuse, Aerosmith had managed to navigate their way through the vicissitudes of musical fashions to retain their position as one of the true giants of rock ‘n’ roll. The huge global success of Nine Lives also helps to bust one of the enduring myths of rock in the 1990s, that which holds that the advent of grunge ‘killed off’ 80s hard rock. Not unlike the similarly reductive suggestion that punk sounded the death knell for progressive rock, the idea that the 80s giants were redundant the moment ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ hit radio is simply not borne out by the facts. Grunge and alternative rock more generally may have shifted the zeitgeist and reset the boundaries in terms of what was and wasn’t relevant with respect to popular culture, but while Nirvana, Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction were earning the critical plaudits to go with the sales, Aerosmith, Guns ‘N’ Roses and Bon Jovi released some of their most popular albums, and continued to be a huge draw on the live circuit. Indeed, it is an amusing coincidence that Nevermind and Get A Grip were released by the same record label, and they probably have a little more in common than many fans would like to admit. I would concede that at the turn of the decade, the likes of Cinderella, Warrant and Poison certainly did fade from view, but this was surely more of a verdict on the staying power of their own low quality musical output than because they were rendered unfashionable by a legion of Seattle-based opiate enthusiasts.
It probably helped that Aerosmith were adept at, not exactly moving with the times per se, but definitely flirting in their general direction. The band were content to adopt the slick, glossy production values favoured by many of their peers during the 1980s, and also successfully diversified their sound, allowing them to find a more broad-based popular appeal. As the tide turned between the release of Get A Grip and its successor, while avoiding walking into the Motley Crue-sized trap marked ‘Ill-Advised Grunge Album’, the band clearly adopt a much noisier and scuzzier sound this time round, as opposed to the pristine sheen of its predecessor. While this production is at times unsuited to the band, and at other times plainly irritating, the songs themselves are mostly very good. In fact, following the patchy and uneven set that had comprised Get A Grip, the release of such a strong and consistent group of songs is an impressive achievement.
As Aerosmith albums invariably do, Nine Lives starts at full tilt with the excellent title track. There’s no discernible riff, but the agreeable rumble of the guitars combine with a sneaky melodicism, and occasional bursts of serrated chords, to construct an understated throwback to their early days, when spontaneity and energy trumped studious songcraft. It’s a courageous move to choose this as the opener, when the obvious choice would have been the more ostentatiously catchy first single ‘Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees)’, which immediately follows. This track is much more standard modern Aerosmith fare, but is structurally unconventional, going straight into the huge and uncharacteristically minor key chorus, before dropping into an economic verse underpinned by some spidery rhythm guitar work, perhaps consciously aping the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic so beloved by the alternative rock that had seeped into the Aerosmith sound. Both melodically and lyrically, Tyler hits all the right notes on this track, adopting an amusingly self-deprecating form of wordplay that is a rather becoming, given the band’s advancing years. Indeed, it features one of his most riotous lines in “Don’t give me no lip / I’ve got enough of my own”.
‘Hole In My Soul’ continues the golden run at the start of this record, a pleasingly authentic ballad, which recalls the earthier sound of Get Your Wings-era Aerosmith. Not for the first time, the band plagiarise their own classic, ‘Dream On’, transposing a version of the piano line from that track into the guitars here, and welding the whole thing to yet another gargantuan chorus. The way in which Tyler works himself to fever pitch in a deliberate move to tug the heartstrings is undeniably overwrought and utterly cheesy, but the melody so adroitly weaves its way through exactly the path that the listener wants it to take, that this can be easily forgiven. Quite apart from that, ‘Hole In My Soul’ creates enough space in the verses to showcase some elastic bass playing from Tom Hamilton which adds another dimension to an already stellar song. The rhythm section are very much the unsung heroes of Aerosmith. Hamilton and Kramer provide a never-less-than-reliable foundation for the more flamboyant talents of the Toxic Twins, but frequently offer a subtle inventiveness that never overwhelms the guitars or vocals, but often function as either an interesting counterpoint or complementary support that perfectly match the requirements of the song.
Remarkably, for a band that have a long history of releasing patchy albums, there are relatively few missteps to be found on Nine Lives. Across 14 tracks, there is of course some filler, most of which can be found in its customary position in the middle of the album, as the excitement of the initial rush of adrenaline wears off. Even these songs are mostly palatable though – ‘The Farm’ intrigues with its Britpop chords and bounce, ‘Attitude Adjustment’ deploys a Stone Temple Pilots-style churning riff to demonstrate that Aerosmith are capable of successfully co-opting new sounds into their framework without it appearing too gauche, and even the mostly predictable and pedestrian ‘Kiss Your Past Good-Bye’ is not a total failure, with a stately guitar lick dominating a majestic outro. Even the most questionable song to be found on the album is imbued with a certain amount of naive charm that ensures that what could be embarrassing is instead oddly endearing. ‘Taste Of India’ is ultimately a well-meaning but flawed song, before we even get to the reductive cultural insensitivity of using a whole nation as a shorthand for the exotic. Rock bands have of course been doing this ever since The Beatles first sought to expand their own minds in the 1960s, and Led Zeppelin’s seminal ‘Kashmir’ has ensured that any rock band that seeks to evoke free-wheeling mysticism and open-mindedness will continue to utilise the Eastern-sounding scales that immediately transport us to a vision of an India that may or may not have ever existed. Aerosmith’s own version is somewhat half-hearted: the sitars and lush-sounding Bollywood strings track the main riff during the verse, as Tyler floats around microtonal melodies intoning laughable lyrics about “vindaloo” (honestly!) and the “tantric priestess”, but perhaps losing a little confidence in their opulent vision, the really rather enjoyable chorus ditches the pseudo-Indian elements altogether for a more straightforward sound, and the awkward compromise of the whole thing renders the track a hot and spicy mess. Even this is better than the horrific pop-country ballad that closes the original version of the album, ‘Fallen Angels’, where the tritest of lyrical content dooms a song that should really have been strangled at birth.
Lyrically, Nine Lives absolutely exhibits the best and worst of Aerosmith. The aforementioned ‘Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees) is amusing, and ‘Full Circle’, another highlight of the album, excels in a different way. There’s something extremely touching about an ageing band acknowledging the passage of time, and the naked vulnerability of this track (“Time, don’t let it slip away / Raise your drinking glass / Here’s to yesterday”) sounds authentic and affecting coming from a band who know that their fiercest and best days are likely behind them, but are committed to the only life they really know, the road and the stage. Such is the rich melodicism of the track, that they manage to negotiate the potentially disastrous cod-Irish folk of the musical accompaniment with aplomb and flair, something that it would be hard to imagine Aerosmith pulling off 20 years previous. At the other end of the spectrum is ‘Pink’. Musically, there’s not too much to dislike, and the hook contains enough musical sorcery to ensure that even the most concerted effort will not shift it from the listener’s memory. The lyrical content, however, is dreadful. To say that “Pink, as the sheets that we lay on / Pink, it’s my favourite crayon / Pink, when I turn out the light / Pink, it’s like red but not quite” is the worst kind of 6th Form poetry does a disservice to schoolchildren the world over who are quite capable of producing more interesting and nuanced work than Aerosmith manage here. The only saving grace is that there is a certain comfort in knowing that the bottom of the barrel has been reached, and the only possible direction for here is upwards.
The reissued version of Nine Lives that is the subject of this review closes the album with the monster single ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’, which was written by Diane Warren as part of the Armageddon soundtrack. It’s easy to criticise this kind of middle of the road ballad, which was intended by the composer to be sung by Celine Dion or Mariah Carey, but despite the fact that it resolutely refuses to rock, Tyler’s theatrical and sky-scraping performance carries an unforgettable melody as well as any multi-octave diva could, and the song deserves the popular acclaim that it found, even if it has since been rather over-played. It’s a curious conclusion to a slightly curious album. Nine Lives could live without the cluttered production that leaves the guitars sounding synthetic and processed, and continually threads unnecessary electronic sounds and effects into tracks, all of which add nothing other than a layer of white noise. The panning of all of the guitars into one speaker during the chorus of the otherwise raging ‘Crash’ is the most egregious of a number of strange decisions that undermine the strengths of a band who are at the best when they sound live and spontaneous. These decisions are also totally pointless – Nine Lives is a splendid and consistent album that stands tall on the strength of its mostly superb songs, and is more than good enough to ensure that this cat was far from ready to be put to sleep forever.