The cover of this album, which is a photograph of something resembling a Rorschach ink blot, is highly symbolic of the music inside and of the listener's response to it. The point of such an ink blot, after all, is its deliberate ambiguity, which allows (or forces) the viewer to see it in whatever he wants to see. Mott the Hoople is itself something of an ink blot, this time around: possibly the reason I haven't been able to decide whether or not I really like this album is that they haven't yet decided what they're going to be.
The eclecticism of their first delightful album is still evident on Mad Shadows, but is subdued and much more diffuse. The Dylan-cum-Laugh-at-Me approach has become only a suggestion of mood on some of the songs and there is less in the way of direct quotation from the group's influences. What has happened is that Mott has more fully absorbed those influences (basically Dylan, Procol Harum, and the early Kinks) into its own style. The problem is that they are not yet completely absorbed, and we have the frustrating phenomenon of hearing the products of Mott's own distinctive genius struggling to emerge from the bedrock of post-1965 rock music in which they are still embedded.
Thus, in amongst the seven cuts (all, this time, by members of the group) are only two in which this foundation is transcended. "Walkin' With a Mountain" is the sole rocker on the album, and it's good. One could quibble, I suppose, about the singer's sounding exactly like Dickie Peterson of Blue Cheer, but that's fine with me. There are also a couple of nice choruses of "Jumpin' Jack Flash."
The only cut on which everything comes together and I hear a really distinctive voice is the opening track, "Thunderbuck Ram," which I think the best on the album. This is basically an instrumental, as there are only two short vocals in the five minutes of the song. In it are integrally combined two strong elements of the group's music: a strain of intense lyricism, as in the beautiful introduction; and the threatening, almost malevolent power the band communicates in other parts of the song.
In fact, these two elements are sometimes schizophrenically mingled elsewhere, and the album becomes very useful as a touchstone to use in clarifying one's taste in rock and roll. Does one want Mott the Hoople to become all-out rave-up heavies, or to do songs a la the Kinks or the Beatles? The rave-up aspect is emphatic on this record, and judging from reviews of the group's live act, is probably more representative of their current style. There's plenty of indication that they can do both, though, as soon as they decide to do it their way.
Mott the Hoople has a lot going for it: competence, tremendous energy, a powerful, dense, bass-heavy sound, and they know how to rock. While I find this album less immediately likeable than their first, it's a good specimen of heavy hard rock. Maybe the third album will be the one that really does it.