What an array of weapons this band has: awesome firepower, an ever-increasing depth of expression, timely themes and an artistic way of mixing these qualities on record. In terms of my own bias, Mott the Hoople has been the most productive band of the last three years, with only the Rolling Stones — a significant source of inspiration for Mott — in the same category. In six attempts, Mott has made four excellent albums, and the latest may be the best.
The band has long had a near-obsessive interest in contemporary mythic figures such as Dylan (singer Ian Hunter's chief vocal model) and James Dean, and in contemporary mythic roles, primarily that of the rock & roll band. In terms of the latter, which dominates Mott's work, the subject matter ranges from the trivial to the universal. "Whiskey Woman," one of guitarist Mick Ralphs's earlier songs, portrays the virtuous rock star imbued with such a sense of mission that he easily squelches the temptation to be sidetracked by carnivorous young girls, while his "Rock 'n' Roll Queen" focuses more facetiously on the same subject.
Ian Hunter's songs take a more metaphysical view of the same general area. Several of them from earlier albums — "The Journey," "Half Moon Bay," "Waterlow" and "Sea Diver" — are rock anthems with a double edge: They project power with a sense of anguish, intimate songs colored by a startling sense of mortality.
The combination of the deeply personal and the mythic has never been more fully developed than on the new album, Mott. The album opens with "All the Way from Memphis," a general but still subjective rock & roll chronicle: "... It's a mighty long way down rock & roll/From the Liverpool docks to the Hollywood Bowl/And you climb up the mountains and you fall down the hole/All the way from Memphis...." Like the diary Hunter wrote of Mott's last tour (which will soon be published as a book), Mott's key songs, all written by Hunter and including the one above, are documents of a specific span of time and a specific state of mind. But, like the personal, detailed songs of Dylan and Davies, they expand forcefully beyond the specific. In "Hymn for the Dudes," for example, Hunter's singing of nightmarish lyrics in which a king and a rock star hover above trenches and barbed wire, quiets gradually to just above a whisper, and when Hunter describes the place of the star in the overall scheme of things — "... You ain't the nazz .../You're just a buzz .../Some kinda temporary..." — he's suddenly interrupted by a jolting boom of electric instruments. At this point, the song shoots instantly to the upper reaches of intensity, and the song's concern, the superstar, becomes a supercharged metaphor.
If All the Young Dudes generated an optimism through David Bowie's wonderful title song, then that album's closer, "Sea Diver," provides a bridge to Mott, which is pervaded by the melancholy of defeat and dashed hopes. "Sea Diver" 's simply worded refrain — "... Ride on, my son, ride until you fail...." — succinctly encapsulates the story of the band, which is both literalized and mythologized here in "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople." The song unites the naive idealism of the rock & roll celebration song (e.g., "Do You Believe in Magic") with the battered voice of bitter experience. The singer knows not only that he's hooked but that he's irretrievably lost — and he wouldn't have it any other way: "... Rock & roll's a loser's game, it mesmerizes — I can't explain/The reasons for the sights and for the sounds/The greasepaint still sticks to my face/So what the hell, I can't erase/The rock & roll feeling from my mind...." As Hunter repeats the last three words, the band's dynamic level increases progressively and his straining finally turns into a hoarse scream. It's really something.
The album's final song, "I Wish I Was Your Mother," eschews rock & roll metaphor (and for that matter, rock instrumentation — the sound is all mandolins and bells) to deal overtly with a love relationship. In this song more than any other save perhaps "Sea Diver," Hunter exposes his romanticism and its corollary, an awareness of inevitable tragedy. He perceives the shape of the traditional loving relationship through the muck of his world and that perception only makes him sadder when considering the future possibilities for his life together with his loved one:
... It's no use me pretending
You give, and I do the spending
Is there a happy ending? I don't think so
'Cause even if we make it
I'll be too far out to take it
You'll have to try to shake it from my head....
I hope quoting from these lyrics in no way takes away from the music, which greatly expands the power of the words and which is as accessible as the songs are ambitious. Hunter's singing is still another primary aspect of the album. He's used Dylan and Bowie — each a dramatically offbeat emphasizer — as explicit sources of inspiration in the past; here he inflects individualistically and quite dangerously throughout, sounding like a cross between a charged-up Dylan or McGuinn and a distracted Method actor desperately auditioning for "The Glass Menagerie." Despite his daring, I don't consider Hunter's approach excessive because, consciously or intuitively, he's in control of every drawl, mince, pause and mumble.
Mott the Hoople's path — from audacity and optimism, through a series of false starts, pitfalls, wrong turns and missed opportunities, to its present point of view, permeated by weariness, sadness and a frighteningly full well of irony — seems a necessary part of the band's specialness. It's now apparent that Mott the Hoople is not playing out the role it once thought it was (emerging superstars) but that of those who dream and struggle only to watch options run out — in other words, the loser. That they became aware of this crucial paradox and were able to capitalize on it aesthetically is impressive enough. That they turned what appeared to be just a highly ironic misfortune into a deeply personal, haunting, all but tragic one casts them in a singular light. Literally and symbolically, Mott sounds very much like a terminal statement.
The album is so well done and so absorbing on every level, however, that Mott the Hoople may well have to deal with still another irony: success following a full acceptance of failure — a success in the very terms by which that failure has been defined. I'd welcome that irony, because I would hate to watch this very special band die.