If you take away the 2001: A Space Odyssey pretensions of Cornerstone's cover art, the social observations of "Why Me" and "Borrowed Time," and the orchestral deployment of Dennis DeYoung's synthesizers, Styx can be appreciated for what they are: an overambitious but impeccably professional pop group.
Styx has always understood the value of a good hook and the guitar riff or vocal harmony to carry it: on their early LPs for Wooden Nickel, they recorded cover versions of Todd Rundgren's "Broke Down and Busted" and the Knickerbockers' protopunk raver, "Lies." Plenty of platinum later, the band still puts its music where the money is. "Babe" and "First Time" are both lush DeYoung ballads, the latter fortified by Styx' trademark harmonies and the Wagnerian fuzz of overdubbed electric guitars in the manner of their 1975 hit, "Lady." "Lights," enlivened by a bouncy beat and a hint of horns, boasts yet another hook on which you could hang your AM radio. And guitarist Tommy Shaw's exuberant "Never Say Never," a winning shot of pop & roll bolstered by a surprisingly aggressive beat, outshines the lot.
Too often, though, Styx falls prey to their own ambitions as art-rockers, and Cornerstone is no exception. "Love in the Midnight" is a particularly melodramatic exercise. The shrieks of a synthesizer in full solo, a brooding satanic chorus, the gentle acoustic prelude — it's all there, all unnecessary and applied with an extremely heavy hand. Styx already has the hooks and harmonies to carry the day as the Midwest's hard-rock answer to Abba. The rest is just a grand illusion.