Death by Power Ballad: REO Speedwagon, “I Needed to Fall”

Written by Music, Power Ballads

One of my favorite things about joining the Popdose brother/sisterhood is the fact that I have found a group of people whose taste in music is as broad and, on occasion, wussified as my own. For example, my illustrious editor, Jason Hare, has seen Air Supply live (recently!), and no one busts his balls for it, at least not in any serious, make-Jason-cry kinda way. Those who bow at the altar of the Two-Headed Russell know they’ve found a kindred spirit in Jason, possibly even a virtual gang of them. There is a safe haven for us all under the banner of the ‘Dose. Say hallelujah, say amen.

And then there’s REO fucking Speedwagon. I’ve proudly flown the flag for Kevin Cronin (or K-Crone, in street parlance) and the boys ever since I bought Hi Infidelity at the Record Town in Woodbridge Mall back in ’81. However, reactions from the Popdose staff are mixed for the man who said he would love us for-eh-vurr. And while I’m not the kind of fan who would engage in a physical altercation to defend K-Crone’s honor (Jefito could probably kick my ass, and he’s about as fierce as a nine-year-old), I am the kind who will spend time at a bar or a record store or on a Web site to make the case for the man and his music.

Last year, in fact, REO delivered its first new studio album since the Clinton administration, a better-than-expected, Wal-Mart-approved record called Find Your Own Way Home. It’s a dignified collection of tunes from a band working in an industry that’s anything but dignified, particularly for a bunch of guys pushing 60.

No, really, it’s quite good. You should definitely check it out, particularly if you’re around 40 and can name the second single off Good Trouble without thinking about it. The pinched-nose affectations K-Crone incorporated into his vocals in the ’90s (which made Building the Bridge and the REO half of the Arch Allies live record unlistenable) have been subsumed to a large extent. Neal Doughty, the band’s keyboardist and longtime secret weapon, provides all the great low-mix color and texture, as he has for almost 40 years. And though I miss Gary Richrath’s chunka-chunka burnin’ chords and chirping solos, my appreciation for Dave Amato has finally exited the grudging stage.

Amid the shed-ready rock anthems and even a weak-kneed attempt at a country tune is a stupendous ballad called “I Needed to Fall.” Now, we all know REO to be, if not the originators of the power-ballad arts, then definitely capos in la familia rocka ballada. “Keep on Lovin’ You” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling” are enshrined in the Arena Rock Hall of Fame (otherwise known as my home office) for their unadulterated power-ballad chutzpah and ability to make guys in their late 30s and early 40s feel like teenagers again.

“I Needed to Fall” is the sentiment of an older man (K-Crone) recognizing past weaknesses, frustrating expectations, and his overarching need for — you guessed it — love. He’s done something bad, or stupid (not as stupid as the guy in the Scorpions’ “Still Loving You,” but stupid enough), but he’s bouncing back, or hoping to bounce back, with the help of the woman he’s addressing. “I needed to fall,” he sings in the chorus, “and come back stronger.” There’s an anticipation that something special’s about to happen, a recognition of his own strength in the face of opposition.

Whatever happened to bring him to this point, it must’ve been a doozy. “So close to giving up,” K-Crone laments, “never been before so broken.” In other words, “Shit’s really fucked up, yo.”

“Can I rise above this burning sea,” he asks, “or am I human after all?” Methinks he’s not referring to being a swashbuckling computer geek, but a guy in his 50s who’s been through something unspecified that laid him low. Apparently, people have had high expectations of him. “So tired of living up / To an image laid upon me,” he moans. “Can I ever be enough / It all seems so far beyond me.” Perhaps touring with Styx is more difficult than any of us can imagine, or having to act surprised each time Bruce Hall jumps out of the tour bus potty in his boxers is just too much. The middle eight makes it clearer:

There is just so much a man can bear
‘Til he starts to find it hard to care
And baby I am almost there

Yep, it’s Bruce and his boxers.

What’s not to like here? You have power chords, acoustic geetars, an uplifting chorus, and a classic rock and roll voice delivering a plea over it all. It ain’t “Keep on Lovin’ You,” but it’s tapping the same vein, and to these ears that’s plenty cool. And if “I Needed to Fall” isn’t enough to convince you, or my Popdose compadres, of REO’s continued viability, perhaps I can distract you by reminding you that Jason Hare has seen Air Supply live — recently!

Say hallelujah. Say amen.