New century, same old Aerosmith. Same five guys. Same iron-boned riffs and crack-the-sky choruses. Same dripping-body-juice metaphors, too, like this fragrant spoonful from "Drop Dead Gorgeous," on the band's thirteenth studio album, Just Push Play: "Creme de gardenia/And black vaseline . . . She's tasting like cherries/Sweet love's grenadine."
Count your blessings — and theirs. By now, after thirty years of big rock, hard drugs, wasted fortunes and seesaw chart rides, singer Steven Tyler, guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer should either be dead or babbling incoherently. Instead, Aerosmith are our most treasured and reliable warrior clowns, the original Ol' Dirty Bastards. They don't carry on with the dignity of old blues buddhas — Aerosmith just plain carry on.
Tyler, in particular, is an ageless marvel: a fifty-three-year-old sex pistol, cocked and loaded with the newly minted lust of a teenage buck. His barn-dog yap can still turn blithering nonsense like "Just Push Play" — "No pimp daddy jack/It's Cadillac wack no Cadillac wack back" — into diamond vocal theater. In fact, the entire point of the song seems to be the impish pleasure Tyler gets from belting "Fuckin' A!" over and over in the chorus.
Yet for all of their contagious denial of late middle age, Aerosmith have not made a Great Album — a platter equal to their original pirate-rock mettle and jubilant stage manner — in a very long time, since Rocks in 1976. Pump came close. That 1989 hit was as good as hard rock's song-doctor era ever got — the band's raw meat meticulously charred and sugared to AOR taste by producer Bruce Fairbairn (Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet) and melody repairmen Jim Vallance and Desmond Child.
Just Push Play is another near-killer for different reasons. For one thing, it is a work of largely native snazz, the first-ever Aerosmith album to be produced by Tyler and Perry (albeit in collaboration with co-writers Mark Hudson and Marti Frederiksen). For another, it is the least self-consciously commercial record Aerosmith have made since their Eighties return from Smacked-Out City. When Just Push Play shakes and snorts, it does so with an honest cheer: the sucker-punched-ELO glow of "Jaded"; the way the Tower of Power horns blast in behind gibbering guitar and Tyler's chrome yowl in the fat chorale of "Trip Hoppin'." When the album goes blah, though, it's usually because of a power ballad.
There are actually two Aerosmiths. One is the garage-soul squad that ripped out of New England in the early Seventies like a supercharged child of Nuggets and James Brown's Live at the Apollo. Combine the Yardbirds' "I Ain't Got You" with Brown's "Mother Popcorn" (as the group really did in a 1973 Boston radio broadcast preserved on Live! Bootleg), and you have "Walk This Way."
The other Aerosmith actually invented the power ballad. Written by Tyler, "Dream On" — first released in 1973, a hit two years later — is still as good, and believable, as young-rock-god self-pity gets. That cannot be said for more recent ham. Aerosmith's version of Diane Warren's Armageddon-soundtrack weeper "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" might have been Number One for four weeks in 1998, but it was still King Kong corn.
Frankly, whenever Aerosmith get sentimental on Just Push Play, I wanna push fast forward. "Fly Away From Here," the only song on the album that neither Tyler nor Perry had any hand in writing, is too obviously the designated successor to "Miss a Thing." "Luv Lies" comes with a dash of blues-cough harmonica and a lyrical twist — it's basically about the kind of people who say "I love you" just to get laid — but never surges beyond cigarette-lighter la-la-la. "Avant Garden" busts out of formula with a psychedelic flair but is most notable for Tyler's wordplay; the title is cool, and only he would dare to rhyme "right" with the Anglo-Irish pronunciation of "shit."
What's left is what counts. There isn't much actual trip-hop in "Trip Hoppin'," but its hop-skip-kick-in-the-groin rhythm shows off the cut-granite funk that Hamilton and Kramer have always brought to the party. (And could that really be Axl Rose's own baritone growl in the last chorus, or an incredible Tyler simulation?) "Beyond Beautiful" and "Under My Skin" are swaggering bundles of double-guitar muscle, Perry and Whitford splitting the air with railroad-spike riffs and throwing lead breaks back and forth like hot coals. "Sunshine" is heavy pomp with a dash of Lewis Carroll and Sixties Brit pop, what the Small Faces might have sounded like if they'd started out playing Boston University frat bashes.
Of the two Aerosmiths here, I know which one I prefer. But I will take schizophrenia over senility any day. Aerosmith don't race on record as much as they once did — "Light Inside" is the only flash of old, "Toys in the Attic" high-speed whine — but they have not softened a whit. If you want to know why Aerosmith still matter and why you should care, put this puppy on the deck and program tracks two, three, five, six, seven and ten. Then just push play.