Adrenalize

Generally speaking, it's time to worry when the term long-awaited gets appended to an album. Long-awaited doesn't just mean that the band in question took its sweet time delivering the disc; usually, it's industry code for "bloated and overblown."

Except, that is, when the long-awaited release in question is the work of Def Leppard. This, remember, is the only major rock act that works more slowly than Bruce Springsteen. In fairness, the band's tardiness isn't entirely the product of foot dragging, as the death of guitarist Steve Clark undoubtedly slowed this album (and doubled fellow guitarist Phil Collen's workload) even more than the loss of drummer Rick Allen's arm complicated the completion of Hysteria.

Yet regardless of the time spent in the studio, Def Leppard's albums never seem especially labored or overwrought. If anything, the opposite is true — the band's music seems so effortlessly accessible that most listeners probably don't even notice the incredible amount of craft that goes into each release.

Nor is Adrenalize, with its insistence on intensely tuneful, unrepentantly frivolous material, likely to change that. There's no overriding concept to the album, no sense of the group's confronting its demons or wrestling with the problems of the world; instead, what we get is a seemingly unending string of energetic, hook-heavy, gosh-we-luv-'em songs about girls. A perfect Def Leppard album, in other words.

That's not meant sarcastically, either. Because truth be told, it's far easier to prop up several couplets of self-revelation with a few heavy-metal riffs than it is to turn an idea as commonplace as romantic desire into a song as memorable as "Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad." But that's what Def Leppard does best, and Adrenalize is the band's most consistent effort to date.

Take "Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad" as an example. Although the title pretty much sums up the idea behind the tune, the band is wise enough to recognize that when it comes to love songs, what gets said matters far less than how it gets said. Thus, the heart of the song is its melodic development, the way Joe Elliott's vocal builds from the breathy, low-key opening verse to the soaring, full-throated harmonies of the chorus. It's so perfectly paced that you hardly need to hear the lyrics to understand what the song is saying; the sound says it all.

That's typical of Def Leppard, though. From the first, this was a band that gloried in the power of heavy metal's musical gestures — the towering majesty of a power riff, the momentary freedom of a guitar break, the exhilaration of a singer's scream — and as the group has grown, its ability to manipulate that vocabulary has expanded to the point that its songs have become mini-masterpieces of aural impact.

Just listen to all the sonic detail crammed into the album-opening "Let's Get Rocked." Although rhythmically the song is an obvious descendant of "Pour Some Sugar on Me," playing off a throbbing Rick Savage bass line, stylistically it's miles beyond the last album, full of puns ("Let's get the rock out of here"), special effects (when Elliott complains about his girlfriend's fondness for classical music, the band mockingly answers with a snippet of Beethoven's Fifth) and all sorts of stagy good humor. Yet the Leps work these gimmicks in so gracefully that they never interrupt the music's flow, acting not as unnecessary contrivances but simply as another level of hook.

And there are hooks of every sort on Adrenalize, from broad strokes like the gloriously harmonized chorus of "Heaven Is" to ear-catching details like the little yodel Elliott slips into "Personal Property." Adrenalize is so relentlessly catchy that it almost seems as if the band is about to abandon its heavy-metal roots for the greener fields of hard pop. That's not to say the album is any softer than its predecessors — certainly the crunchy guitars of "Tear It Down" or "Make Love Like a Man" are proof to the contrary — just that it's not as noisily aggressive.

Consider that a sign of maturity. After all, what made Hysteria and Pyromania worth returning to wasn't their fist-pumping energy but the unabashed tunefulness the band tied to that sheer force. Adrenalize simply makes that connection more explicit, proving in the process that Def Leppard is one of the catchiest bands in rock. And if that doesn't make Adrenalize worth waiting for, I don't know what would.

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