Death by Power Ballad: Chickenfoot, “Different Devil”
Have you ever heard a song that hit you so hard, got you so jazzed, you wanted to play it for everyone? Immediately? Regardless of whether that song is truly a power ballad, as your column’s title promises, or whether you’ve already written about the song’s singer four months before? You know how that goes, right?
First, let me say this new Chickenfoot record, Chickenfoot III, is a hoot ‘n’ a holler, chock full of vintage-sounding hooks and nouveau Satch-arific riffage, and it rocks like a motherfucker. The Sammy Hagar/Michael Anthony vocal tandem sound as good as, if not better than, they did back in the 5150/OU812 period, when Van Halen was at the height of its pop-making power, and on more than one cut (“Big Foot” in particular), Chad Smith’s groove cuts through the speakers like a samurai sword through a bad guy. I was hesitant to embrace this band when they put out their first record, but I am fully on board now. They rock. Their record rocks. I’m hooked on ‘em, and it’s a gas-gas-gas.
On III‘s third track, they spring a doozy on us, something called “Different Devil.” First thing you hear is an acoustic guitar, chunking along behind an atmospheric minor key progression, with Mikey’s keening falsetto doing some serious angel shit in the background. Then Le Rocquer Rouge saunters to the mic and begins testifyin’:
There’s a wise old tale
About the same old hell
Only the devil is changed
With two brand new lovers
Rolling in the covers
Everybody wants some strange
True dat. Stick with the same person long enough, and you might begin to wonder what it’d be like to wander, whether the grass is greener in someone else’s company, etc.—a few trillion seven-year itches and midlife crises have been hatched from such musings. So you make the move, break a heart or two, and wake up a few years later in a different bed, wondering what it’d be like to wander all over again. It is indeed the same hell, just a different devil—Hagar tells a funny story about writing the song (video below), when a slick old Lothario in Cabo said that very thing to him, after introducing Hagar to his much younger girlfriend.
Then the pre-chorus kicks you:
We all know somebody gonna tell you just what to do
But it don’t mean nothing unless it’s got something for me and you
Swaggering around town with a young hottie while the wife holds things down at home might seem like the appropriate move (if you can get away with it); leaving the wife for said hottie might even seem like the right thing to do—you’re being true to yourself, honest about your emotional connections, yada yada. But is it really better? Or just the same thing, with someone different, someone you don’t have lotsa road miles with, someone who lacks that real connection with you that all those miles helped forge?
Hagar throws down the gauntlet in the chorus:
If you think there’s someone better
To the arms of something new
You can stay
If you think he’ll treat you better than I do
Turn around babe
I’ll be right there waiting for you
So the fire’s a little hotter over there? Go check it out, if you want to. Think you’ll be happier doing something else, with someone else? Investigate away, sweetums. But when things cool down over there, you’ll realize it wasn’t so bad over here—you were just a little tired, just a little bored; maybe we’d let some of the excitement of love go, in favor of just being comfortable. Turn around, babe—we can get some of that excitement back. Right here, right now.
The killer lines are in the last verse:
There’s a sweet dark angel
On my shoulder
Singing in my ear
From the bad side of heaven
With all her glory
Temptation can, and likely will, whisper to you when you’re weakest, when you’re thinking most seriously about leaving. All the while, though, what you need is very likely right where you are.
It’s a sentiment that explains grown-up concerns within complex, adult relationships. And it comes out of the mouth of a man who, just half an album later, extols the virtues of well-placed reminders of one’s lover (“Tattoo it on my arm, on the back of your neck / In between your legs, baby, so you won’t forget me”). Go figure.
I love songs like this—written and played by adults, for adults, about adult concerns. “Different Devil” is the kind of smart, mature, hook-heavy rock song that pops up when such things appear to be in shortest supply. Hagar’s been responsible for a few of them—he can turn it on when the mood strikes him—and he does it again here.
I was floored the first time I heard it. I just had to tell you all about it.