Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: Aerosmith
- Album: Just Push Play
- Year of Release: 2001
- Country: USA
- Label: Columbia
- Format: Jewelcase CD
- Catalogue Number: 501535 2
Just Push Play is Aerosmith’s 13th studio album, and in many ways it is to their credit that it’s taken nearly 30 years for them to produce an album that for the first time results in the band sounding like something of an anachronism, a band unsuccessfully chasing the pack that they once effortlessly ran with, and even lead on occasion. In some respects, it has been to Aerosmith’s advantage that they have never really been musical innovators, in the way that many of their inspirations were. Instead, they rose to prominence by successfully synthesising the blues and rock ‘n’ roll that inspired them into a lean and energetic distillation of something that already existed, and combined this sound with an unerring ability to write enormous, memorable pop choruses. This allowed them to craftily adopt elements of the prevailing sonic trends of the 1980s and 1990s, without ever losing their essence, and importantly without their motives appearing obviously cynical. Aerosmith have always been musical magpies; unfortunately on Just Push Play, their ability to discern the treasure from the trash has deteriorated. The result is an album that is the disjointed aural equivalent of a midlife crisis, a creaking father trying out his teenage son’s clothes for size, before a night at the “discotheque”.
In some respects, the band’s continuing desire to challenge convention and expand their sound is admirable, and maybe preferable to a phoned-in and fundamentally dishonest ‘back to the roots’ effort. However, unlike some of the successful experiments found on Nine Lives, where the band branched out into Eastern atmospheres and folky singalongs, the experimentation is largely confined to the window dressing of sound design and production, applying what now sounds like horribly dated sonics to mostly pedestrian pop-rock, and the end product is an uneven and incoherent document of a band riven with confusion, driven only by a misguided wish to remain relevant. Most of the songs contained on the album exhibit the flaws outlined above, but the most egregious (albeit darkly amusing) example of everything coming together in a perfect shitstorm of incompetence is ‘Outta Your Head’, found towards the end of the album. Processed breakbeats and an unusually discordant guitar line herald a frankly bizarre foray into an approximation of rap-rock. The stabbing guitars crunch like prime Rammstein, which on many records would be a cause for celebration, but on an Aerosmith record is simply jarring and incongruous, and what could at least be a memorable chorus is cruelly marred by intrusive string and vocal loops that add absolutely nothing of value. There are a number of instances of Tyler attempting something approach rapping on this album, and the verses are delivered in this way throughout this track – one imagines that the band have been hoodwinked by the way in which Run DMC transformed Tyler’s heavily rhythmic delivery on the classic ‘Walk This Way’ into thinking that the gulf between vocalist and MC was one that could be traversed, but in fact the results here show that just because you can see the other side of the abyss, it doesn’t mean that you should jump. The song is not completely devoid of merit – the sweeping strings of the post-chorus interlude suggest an opulent vision that briefly comes into view, but any sparks of hope are extinguished by the clumsy and cack-handed execution.
Elsewhere, there are glimmers of Aerosmith’s former glory which provide moments of enjoyment less afflicted by the painful production. The brash opener, ‘Beyond Beautiful’ is powered by a propulsive, thrusting riff, the quality of which is only mildly impaired by the synthetic tone, bizarrely reminiscent in its industrial-lite stylings of moderately popular 90s rockers Filter, and although the facile lyrics are off-putting, the chorus soars in standard Aerosmith fashion. It is also blessed with an enjoyable guitar solo, Perry’s rich blues tone cutting sabre-like through the electronic muddle of the rest of track in a way that triggers a brief acid flashback of full-bore 70s Aerosmith, before the valium of mid-2000s Aerosmith gently nudges the listener back into a soporific stupor almost immediately. The first single from the album, ‘Jaded’ shows up as the third track, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen for that particular honour. It’s a conventional, well-constructed mid-tempo rocker, but on Just Push Play, a solid song with a memorable chorus and no superfluous layers of sound is riches indeed, and it’s uncomplicated elegance is a high point for the album. Another such pinnacle is ‘Under My Skin’, which sees the band come within touching distance of brilliance. Were it not for the programmed beats competing pointlessly with the kind of greasy, climbing riff that Perry and Whitford once specialised in, the infectious chorus and deceptively complex harmonic interplay of the horn accompaniment would render the song a late-period classic. As it is, it’s undoubtedly a track that would effectively occupy the band’s live set, with a little less polish and a little more heft accentuating the latent power and energy of a song that could sit fairly comfortably on Pump.
As we have already observed, originality has never been Aerosmith’s strong point, and they have rarely been afraid to plagiarise themselves. Several albums feature attempts to re-write ‘Dream On’ for example, and ‘Walk This Way’ crops up as a reference point throughout their discography, including this album’s title track. As if to emphasise the plunge in quality that Just Push Play represents though, even the songs that the band are mining this time round are hardly genre classics. ‘Fly Away From Here’ is at least catchy, but is very much a mediocre sequel to the more successful pairing of ‘Cryin” and ‘Crazy’. The minor key verse melody leads fluidly into a widescreen chorus, effectively injecting a dose of redemptive optimism into an otherwise downbeat tune, and the string arrangement is undeniably lovely, as are the perfectly judged vocal harmonies, but overall, the song just fails to traverse enough of the emotional and melodic spectrum to bring the kind of theatrical drama that is required to create a world-class power ballad, and so it remains ever so slightly dour and unremarkable. Even this is delightful compared to the horribly plodding ‘Luv Lies’, which covers similar territory and again reminds the listener not just of the Get A Grip mega-ballads, but of many similar bands of that era, albeit without seeming to directly rip off anything identifiable. This is a familiar theme throughout the album – a vocal line, or rhythmic idea often recalls another band or song, and that would suggest that there is simply not enough of Aerosmith’s own personality infusing the music, enabling it to stand alone. The same applies lyrically, where it seems that a tired Tyler has run out of ideas, and the kind of ribald, attention-grabbing turn of phrase that one can usually rely on an Aerosmith album to provide is entirely absent here. As such, Just Push Play mostly passes the listener by without making a lasting impact.
Although it reclaims a little of the lost ground with the unexpectedly wonderful light psychedelia of closing track ‘Avant Garden’, which belies the gauche pun of its title with a lightness of touch and sense of dynamics that is not found anywhere else on the album, Just Push Play is not a good album. Perhaps this verdict is partially because it’s an Aerosmith album, and therefore my own expectations of what it should sound like inevitably play into my evaluation, and this certainly raises an interesting question as to whether it is possible to judge an album entirely on its merits, when one is so familiar with the previous work of the band that has made it. Certainly there are albums that I view with a greater degree of fondness than the music might objectively deserve because of the band that produced it (a number of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest albums probably fall into the category), and similarly other albums are all the more crushingly disappointing for the same reason. After careful consideration though, I suspect I would reach the same conclusion were this album released by anyone else; it simply doesn’t maintain a high enough level of interest for long enough. The most confusing element of all, is just who the band made this album for. There seem to be some deliberate attempts to court pop fans with a production that contains surface elements of contemporary popular music, but it is simply not modern enough to reach a new audience in an extremely fast-moving scene that is largely dominated by music deriving from hip hop and electronica. Similarly, despite the occasional bursts of riffola, and the odd blazing lead that seems to be included as a sop to the more traditional tastes of Joe Perry, it is not enough of a rock album to either satisfy existing fans, or reach younger rockers newly turned on to guitar music by the tail end of nu-metal, or the fast-rising emo-punk scene of the early noughties. Just Push Play is ultimately just not enough, and at this point the worst album of the band’s career.