If you wanna hang loose, baby, get a grip." When Steven Tyler delivers this bit of wisdom on the title track of Aerosmith's fifteenth album, it seems plausible enough. Or maybe it's just impossible to argue with this screaming siren and his crew when they fall in behind a hot-shit metallic R&B strut. On "Get a Grip," one of Tyler's trademark silver-tongued spiels tames a bucking Joe Perry guitar riff, the rhythm section never stops galloping, and it sure sounds like America's reigning hard-rock band is back in the saddle again. After the commercial and, yes, aesthetic success of Pump (1989), the stage is clearly set for Aerosmith's triumphant return. Miraculously unscarred and much smarter, these ultimate Seventies survivors are perfectly positioned in 1993.
But, hey, our recently departed president got one thing right — it's weird out there now. Popular tastes have gone through so many upheavals that nothing is automatic in rock & roll anymore. Playing it safe just isn't as safe as it used to be. And make no mistake, playing it safe according to strict late-Eighties directives is exactly what Aerosmith — and its songwriting contractors — are up to on Get a Grip. If Pump's "Janie's Got a Gun" opened possibilities for this group and hard rock in general, the formulaic macho slobber of "Flesh" and the humorless clean-living uplift of "Livin' on the Edge" slam them shut.
For a spirited half-hour or so, Aerosmith pretty much gets over on sheer awe-inspiring technique — the relentless momentum of drummer Joey Kramer and bassist Tom Hamilton, measured applications of brute sonic force from Perry and second guitarist Brad Whitford, Tyler's dancing around and draping scarves over the top. Playing together as a band for twenty-odd years definitely has its advantages; each instrumental voice distinctly holds its own in an instantly recognizable blend.
Yet the bulk of Get a Grip sticks to proven designs, the tried and true. The tossed-off "Intro" is the only nod to Tyler and Perry's barrier-smashing 1986 version of "Walk This Way" with Run-D.M.C.; the subtle funk underpinnings of Aerosmith's fleet, fast-talking boogie remain largely unexplored on Grip. That lack of wild-eyed adventure is reflected in this set's pointedly sobersided lyrics. Too few sweet-talking sassafrassies from Tallahassee rear their tousled heads. Motor-mouth verbal inventiveness is replaced by a decidedly calmer, more inspiring tone. Many party-down anthems ("Grip," "Fever," Joe Perry's Keith tribute "Walk On Down") actually allude to the group members' well-documented addiction-and-recovery struggles. Without denying Tyler's hard-won sobriety, the problem with Grip's constant moralizing is best summed up by a line from Tyler himself: "I just can't listen to all that righteous talk," he wails on "Amazing." It's tough, all right, especially on that frightfully operatic Queen-derived closing cut.
"Livin' on the Edge," the first single, ascends into a soaring, Bon Jovi-esque power chorale; only the gritty guitars on the bridge keep the damn thing grounded. "Flesh" celebrates the carnal with a mainline metal rush, but there's an air of joyless anonymity to these come-ons — sorta makes Pump's "Love in an Elevator" sound madly romantic. "Eat the Rich," despite its rust-for-breakfast guitar gnashing, is not Aerosmith's snarky comment on its own recent megabuck record deal — too bad. Instead, it's a facile putdown of some (female, of course) Robin Leach wanna-be.
Further proof of a creative crisis lurks in Grip's treacherous second half. Call in the song doctors, from the infamous Desmond Child on down, and you get what you pay for: greeting-card hokum and lowest-common-denominator hooks. "Don't get deep," pleads Tyler on the pounding "Shut Up and Dance." Not to worry; when your songwriting partners are Jack Blades and Tommy Shaw of Damn Yankees, shallow is a stretch. It's hard to know how to take something as aggressively stupid and naggingly catchy as "Shut Up and Dance." As a spoof of early-Eighties pop-metal trailblazers like Night Ranger and Lover-boy, it's frighteningly letter-perfect. But listen to Tyler wail away earnestly on the slow-burning torch numbers "Cryin'" and "Crazy" and you start to suspect that Aerosmith has lost touch over the last couple of years.
"Cryin'" grinds away with enough Stonesy élan to make you ignore the hack formula: atrocious rhymes, simplistic melody, sentimentality measured out in buckets. This caterwauling power ballad could be a hit, but it could also nail the coffin shut on that decaying commercial genre. And not a minute too soon: Hearing the once-wicked Tyler reduced to mouthing, "What can I do, honey/I feel like the color blue," on the leaden "Crazy" surely represents some kind of low-water mark. Tyler at least deserves better lines than Michael Bolton.
Signs of hope do exist, however, even in Grip's most dragging moments. "Line Up" skates along with a zesty horn line and bop-shoo-bopping chorus, its sharp arrangement a welcome relief from the surrounding melodrama. Co-author Lenny Kravitz is hardly a verbal wizard, but his input makes an agreeable difference: "Line Up" fires off a lighthearted spark that's largely missing from the rest of this too-serious album.
Maybe Get a Grip will serve as musical therapy for Aerosmith. Remember, this band thrives on inconsistency; its ability to turn a stumble into a comeback is legendary. With all the chartwise calculations and stiffening self-consciousness expurgated, the next Aerosmith album could be a killer. Sometimes, if you wanna get a grip and hold it, you gotta loosen up.