Has success spoiled Ian Hunter? Last year's Mott received and deserved much acclaim. It seemed a post-glitter breakthrough, debunking superstardom and demythologizing rock: "Rock 'n' roll's a loser's game." But since then Hunter and Mott the Hoople have themselves become stars, and unfortunately they appear to have lost the detached perspective which distinguished Mott. Instead of self-awareness, The Hoople offers self-pity; instead of insight and irony, it purveys the cheap histrionics of Alice Cooper. Where Mott's "Violence" dramatized with wit and understanding the thuggery of frustrated street punks, The Hoople's "Crash Street Kidds" mindlessly flaunts it. Likewise, "The Golden Age of Rock 'n' Roll" and "Through the Looking Glass" on The Hoople vulgarize the more discerning "All the Way from Memphis" and "Hymn for the Dudes" on Mott. The earlier songs exposed rock's shabby evanescence and lack of authenticity, but they also arrived at a joyful, though tempered, affirmation of the music. The Hoople's debased replicas are less perceptive as well as more dispiriting.
Mott has established itself as one of the very few thinking rock bands. Their last two albums (Mott and All the Young Dudes) succeeded because of the power of Hunter's autobiographical statements and the incisiveness of his observations on music and the sociocultural scene. Hunter takes his writing seriously enough to have published his diary; and his lyrics, printed on the inner sleeve, ask to be considered with equal seriousness.
The deterioration of Mott's lyrics has been accompanied by a similar musical decline, accentuated by the departure of lead guitarist Mick Ralphs (his replacement, Ariel Bender, formerly of Spooky Tooth and, briefly, Stealers Wheel, is less powerful). Even more than the words, the tunes tend to be smudged copies of earlier songs. Mott repeats and exaggerates the stagey gimmicks which, in very small doses, worked well on the group's previous albums. Obtruding dialogue and heavy-handed sound effects clutter many of the tracks. A cutesy conversation, for instance, sullies the otherwise superb single, "Roll Away the Stone." In the past, Mott has insisted that it was a hard-rock band, not a theatrical troupe; but The Hoople strains towards melodrama, most disastrously in the pretentious and bathetic "Marionette" and "Through the Looking Glass."
Because it's so unlike the rest of the album, "Trudi's Song" is the most arresting track. A simple, guileless and lovely tribute to Hunter's wife, it echoes Dylan's "She Belongs to Me"; it rings strikingly true, without hokum. Its heartfeltness is in contrast to much else on The Hoople. Except for a silly instrumental break, "Alice," a variation and expansion of Mott's "Whizz Kidd," also stands out, both for its masterful vocal (somehow Hunter's singing seems all the more inspired the more it sounds like a cockney Dylan) and its account of fellatio on 42nd Street. The Hoople's best lyric, it evokes a Britisher's complex response, at once leering, loving, bemused and repelled, to Lou Reed's New York. Parts of "Pearl 'n' Roy (England)" — about the political and economic collapse of Hunter's homeland — are equally vivid.
Yet fine as these songs are, The Hoople cannot compare to its predecessors, Mott and All the Young Dudes. Let's hope that Mott snaps back quickly.