Mick Ralphs, Bad Company's lead guitarist, has been quoted as saying he left Mott the Hoople because he "wanted to play a ballsier kind of rock & roll." There you have it. Ralphs' description captures the strengths and weaknesses of Bad Company's erstwhile style in a nutshell: balls, but less in the sense of nervy musical expansion than of macho bullishness and the allocation of brutish power to the most simplistic riffs.
There's riffing aplenty on Bad Company's latest, but the balls are constrained by a jockstrap of despair. Desolation Angels reveals qualities about these guys that their earlier work didn't hint at: wry world-weariness and a bemusement toward the tension between the sexes, plus a querulous, queasy feeling about their own place in all this. It's as if Bad Company had listened to the product of their ball-brained heirs, Foreigner, and what they heard made them feel scared and scarred, old and depressed.
What's impressive about Desolation Angels is less the quality of the music than the kind of music the band has now chosen to make. Fully half of the new album consists of medium-tempo ballads, songs as garrulously melancholy as the Jack Kerouac novel from which the LP's title is taken. Kerouac's book was an exhausted excoriation of the aging writer's themes of betrayed friendship and unbalanced love affairs, and that's also what Paul Rodgers is singing about in such numbers as "Early in the Morning" and "Lonely for Your Love." Rodgers' vocals and Ralphs' guitar playing are every bit as ragged and repetitious as Kerouac's prose — song for song, there's a lot of sincere, mediocre work earnestly being committed to vinyl.
Fortunately, these individual mediocrities gather a cumulative force that results in a triumph of tone: on Desolation Angels, Bad Company is no longer the bunch of mechanical hedonists they've always seemed in the past. Instead, they present themselves as confused, desperate rockers, aching to be admired (both by the fans who'll buy this record and by the lovers to whom the tunes are addressed) even when they know that admiration — be it professional or romantic — is the most ephemeral of rewards.
The most blatant example of this change in attitude is the album's most blatant hard rocker, "Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy," a bit of self-contemplation made charming by the modesty of its detail. Here, Rodgers holds that, for him, nirvana is but a well-played and well-received Bad Company concert — a nice, if too obviously ingenuous, notion.
Things get slightly more subtle in the moony pastorale, "Early in the Morning," which sports a vocal from Rodgers that at first sounds like Seals and Crofts but then rises to recall the young Stevie Wonder at his most solemnly sentimental. Yet at least two of the track's five minutes are slow, surplus boogie music. Bad Company may have discovered the aesthetic advantages of tenderness, but they still can't come up with compelling, varied melodies to express that feeling.
Only twice do song and sentiment converge to create the group's desired ballsy-but-brainy combination. The bass and drums that drive "Rhythm Machine" provide a dense, terse hook for what initially seems to be just another salute to the male member. Quickly, however, the title metaphor expands to include the idea that this "machine" works only for its one true love, and will do so all night long — if she wants it to.
Best of all is "Take the Time," a sweet, swaying ballad by Ralphs, with a chorus that emphasizes "I wanna take the time/To tell you I love you." Needless to say, this amounts to quite a philosophical about-face, because the band's biggest hits, "Can't Get Enough" and "Feel like Makin' Love," were about nothing so much as the summary demands of a love-starved brute who wanted it fast and never mind the sweet talk.
But good intentions don't necessarily mean a good record, and Desolation Angels, for all its seriousness and hard work, plods more often than it kicks in. Yet Bad Company's small, honest breakthrough does make them credible and even sympathetic at a time when either the postboogie puffery of Foreigner, Styx, Kansas et al., or the austere aggressiveness of punk would seem to have rendered their second-generation hard rock all but obsolete. Instead, Bad Company has found salvation, inspiration and balls in utter desolation. May such "unhappiness" flourish.