Once upon a time, rock & roll was thought of as a young man’s game, far too alive and dangerous for anyone older than, say, 30. And really, the early rock records make a convincing argument for this school of thought; the arrangements might seem a little timid compared to the stuff we’re used to hearing now, but they hum with the unique energy and excitement of youth. Elvis and Buddy Holly are superficially square by today’s standards, but their music speaks to a resistance against the status quo that leaked out of rock music sometime after John Mellencamp’s “Authority Song” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” took the music’s rebellious shtick to its logical conclusion (and far beyond).
What we learned, though, is that the music was deeper and more absorbent than anyone could have guessed; rock eventually grew to include dozens of subgenres, and the artists who came up trying to tear down the old guard eventually joined it, finding their own music railed against (and ultimately canonized) by younger generations. It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen happen countless times since rock’s beginnings, and it’s extended to R&B, hip-hop, and even electronica. The music, to everyone’s seeming surprise, always manages to expand and deepend along with the perspectives of its aging artists. It can be a little depressing sometimes — poor Pete Townshend and his public death wish — but it’s contributed to some of the best music of the last quarter century, late-period Rolling Stones albums notwithstanding.
The one genre that can’t seem to wrap its head around aging, though, is hair metal; despite the continued touring power/absurd, cockroach-like persistence of bands like Poison and Warrant, none of the bands that were abusing spandex, hairspray, and amps in the ’80s have been able to figure out how to make the transition into middle age. It’s understandable — more than any other genre, hair metal was, at its peak, preoccupied with cheap sex and substance abuse, not necessarily in that order, and as awesome as that stuff sounds when it’s being shouted about by twentysomethings, it’s sad and a little scary when folks in their 40s and 50s do it, particularly if they have the grizzled, slightly dazed look of people who have been there and done that an unhealthy number of times. Any new post-grunge album from an older hair metal act seems to deal with this problem in one of two ways: either by embracing the genre’s cornball underpinnings and trying to quasi-ironically recreate the old sound, or by trying to copy trendier, younger metal acts. Either strategy has been known to yield limited results, but more often than not, they just leave the artist in question with something to hold down the tablecloth at the merch table.
And either strategy, incidentally, would have been preferable to the path Lita Ford chose for her new release, Wicked Wonderland, an album that seems to have been created for the sole purpose of destroying whatever’s left of Ford’s career. Or destroying the Earth — I’m not really sure. What I do know is that this is one of the worst albums I’ve ever heard. In fact, I can’t remember the last time it took this much effort just to finish a record — at 15 tracks and over an hour in length, Wonderland is an audio endurance test, a hellish gauntlet of half-baked melodies, comically awful vocals, and an ugly, muddy mix that reduces the whole thing to a nightmarish brown swirl. To call it “noise” would be an insult to noise. Listening to it made me nostalgic for “Kiss Me Deadly,” which is an emotion I never wanted to feel.
In Ford’s defense, she did have a theme in mind for the album. As she says in Wonderland‘s press release:
ItÁ¢€â„¢s funny, as IÁ¢€â„¢ve gotten older, IÁ¢€â„¢ve only gotten freakier. Yeah, I took time to raise my kids and by raising my kids, I mean really doing it — home-schooling them myself, growing our food, baking bread for dinner. But at the end of the day, when itÁ¢€â„¢s time to go to the boudoir, Jim and I are super-sexual and thatÁ¢€â„¢s definitely reflected in these songs.
The “Jim” she’s referring to is Nitro’s Jim Gillette, whose voice is draped all over the album like an ancient, shit-stained pair of briefs, and their vocal back-and-forth turns Wicked Wonderland into a sort of concept album about middle-aged glam rockers having kinky sex, which is both a noble strike in the battle against ageism and the grossest thing I’ve ever heard.
It really wouldn’t be so bad hearing Ford and Gillette scream stupid crap like “Shake that ass, shake that ass, shake that ass / I know you love it when I shake that ass” if Wonderland contained anything approaching a decent melody; actually, anything that sounded like an actual song would be an improvement. To be fair, there might be some smart compositional stuff going on here, but I really doubt it, and in any case, they’ve buried everything so deep in the mix that the whole album sounds like something you’d hear playing in a strip club in a Z-grade horror movie. Ford describes it as the heaviest thing she’s ever done, which is true, but it’s also the worst; not only is the songwriting uniformly awful and the production viscerally repellent, but the lyrical outlook — such as it is — is stupid and confused, even in the context of the genre. It’s the type of record that includes the refrain “Knock down, drag out, patriotic son of a bitch” and bleeps the word “shit” — in the same song — and finds Ford pretending she’s still a Circus pinup with bottomlessly sad lines like these ones, from “Piece”: “36-24-36, that’s right, long blond hair and a body that’s tight…Everybody wants it, yes they do, everybody wants it, so do you…Everybody wants a piece of me, baby, I can read your mind…If you want it, say ‘hell yeah.'”
It isn’t as big as it once was, but there’s still an audience for artists like Lita Ford — the folks who turn out at Sturgis and Rocklahoma every year do buy new music, contrary to most of the available evidence — which makes it all the more painfully ironic that after a 15-year layoff, Ford has emerged with a record that sounds like she’s pissed off at everyone who ever enjoyed any of her earlier hits. Wicked Wonderland wants to be edgy and aggressively sexual, but it isn’t; it’s just a dreary, muddled, exhausting slog, one that misses the point completely. After all, this style of music, at bottom, is supposed to be about celebrating pleasure for pleasure’s sake. So why doesn’t anyone sound like they’re having fun in Wonderland? I don’t know, and I suspect Ford is too busy playing the album at top volume (probably while boffing her husband) to care. I do know, though, that you should avoid this album like a van full of former members of Ratt — although, now that I think about it, I doubt any of those guys could make an album that sucked this hard if they tried. Sample it below, if you dare, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
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