"Long Road Out of Eden," the ten-minute centerpiece of this two-CD, twenty-song album, epitomizes everything that is familiar, surprising, overstretched and, in many ways, right about the entire set. The song echoes the title hit of 1976's Hotel California, the Eagles' defining monument to mirage, money and no escape. But this time the desert is overseas and oil is the new champagne. When drummer Don Henley sings, "Now we're driving dazed and drunk" in a grainy, plaintive voice, it is an entire nation at the wheel, "bloated with entitlement, loaded on propaganda."
That is brassy censure from a band that, in the Seventies, embodied Hollywood vainglory, shining its klieg-light guitars and vocals on the low roads through high living with an often wicked insight that only comes from knowing each mile intimately. But there is a potent restraint to "Long Road Out of Eden," in the bleak, hollow mix of acoustic guitar and electric piano in the verses and the overcast sigh of the harmonies. There is empathy, too, for the soldier on night patrol, with dirty work to do and everything to lose. "I'm not counting on tomorrow/And I can't tell wrong from right," Henley sings. "But I'd give anything to be there in your arms tonight." That's not self-interest — just the purest need.
The resemblance in title between this album and the Eagles' last studio record, 1979's The Long Run, is no coincidence. Henley and singer-guitarist Glenn Frey, the band's surviving founders, have always written and sung about asphalt and distance —: getting as far from responsibility as possible, crawling home, bruised and maybe wiser, when the fun runs out. And making Long Road Out of Eden was a protracted haul in itself. Henley, Frey, guitarist Joe Walsh and singer-bassist Timothy B. Schmit reportedly worked on the album for six years, and the Topanga-country gallop "How Long" goes back much further. Written by veteran compadre J.D. Souther, it is a previously unrecorded relic of the group's early-Seventies live sets.
But the Eagles' original studio albums were all models of clenched-gleam detail, and Long Road suffers from sprawl. "Center of the Universe" makes the most of its bare bones — the circular-staircase effect of the guitars — and "Waiting in the Weeds" lets the lyrics carry the impatience ("I heard some wise man say that every dog will have his day/He never mentioned that these dog days get so long"). But Schmit's sweetly sung spotlights are Eighties-ballad sugar. Walsh's "Last Good Time in Town" is a wry cantina-swing sequel to "Life in the Fast Lane" — staying home apparently is the new going out — and he cuts through the salsa-lounge grooming with James Gang-era guitar. Seven minutes, though, is a long time to sing about doing fuck-all.
Henley and Frey still find easy pickings in bad behavior. In "Fast Company," Frey affects a Prince-like falsetto over a chilled-funk stroll, playing an old-timer who can't even remember the action he used to get. "Busy Being Fabulous" is classic Eagles saloon-band shine about an errant filly, except this one is a mom who can't tell the difference between raising kids and being one. And Henley may be having a grim laugh at the Eagles' own expense in the materialist rant "Business as Usual": "A barrel of monkeys, a band of renown/But business as usual is breakin' me down."
Nothing, of course, is business as usual in the music industry, and the Eagles, now running their own label, have chosen Wal-Mart as the album's exclusive retailer. There is an inevitable contradiction in buying a record that attacks corporate greed and blind consumerism in songs like "Do Something" and "Frail Grasp of the Big Picture" from a superchain with a bleak record on employee rights and health care. But Long Road Out of Eden is available direct at Eaglesband.com for $11.88, a bargain even with the misfires — and worth it for the title song alone.