The story so far: Billy Idol, a British singer with spiky peroxide-blond hair and a facial expression somewhere between a smile and a sneer, makes waves on the late-Seventies punk scene with a band called Generation X. He migrates to America after that group’s breakup and discovers a metal-driven whiz-kid guitarist named Steve Stevens. They reach the big time with a pair of albums, Billy Idol and Rebel Yell, that yield a string of hit singles and videos. The machinery of fame, abetted by the cartoonish medium of rock video, turns aspects of a complex personality into a dangerous and reductive caricature that is bought by the audience and, apparently, by the artist himself.
Seven years have passed since Rebel Yell, with only one other album of new songs from Idol, the tentative, dispirited Whiplash Smile. Rumors of dissipation have hounded the singer. But it is 1990, and a brand-new Billy Idol album, Charmed Life, indicates he is no longer a casualty of fame but a rebel with a cause: self-preservation. Addressing the dualities within himself — good versus evil, tough versus tender, wild rock & roller living on the edge versus responsible human being who is now a father — with unflinching honesty, Idol winds his way through a dense maze of desire to arrive at a place where he can rock hard for life. Without denying that for many the thrill of living has a lot to do with risking their lives, Idol opens himself up to the counterbalancing emotions of love, mercy and humility and, in doing so, explores new dimensions in his character and his work.
In two of Charmed Life‘s most potent and revealing numbers, “Prodigal Blues” and “Mark of Caine,” Idol draws from biblical stories to uncover lessons or work through his paradoxes. “Prodigal Blues” is the album’s first change-up, coming as it does after “The Loveless” and “Pumping on Steel,” a pair of blustery, hypercharged rockers in the Rebel Yell mold. The latter two tracks are deliciously edgy, lustfully walking on the wild side in an adrenaline rush of surging, crypto-metal guitar and bellowing vocals. Idol is exorcising the rebel, but the rebel won’t let go: “No control mama/One of the loveless baby,” he shouts in “The Loveless.” “T’ve got to ride/I might die tonight,” he sings in “Pumping on Steel” — lines that proved eerily prophetic of his recent motorcycle crackup.
Then, almost quietly, he begins singing a different story in “Prodigal Blues”: “Riding my life/Like a run-a-way train/Moving from/One track to that/Howling, crying/Screaming at the moon/Only my voice came back/Only the echo came back.” The music is delicate; Idol’s voice is pensive, stripped of its gravelly swagger. Like the prodigal son in the parable, Idol admits to losing his way along the road of excess but stops short of repentance, singing, “And yes I’d do it again/Wouldn’t you?” with an almost ferocious underscoring of that defiant last question. With its classic sense of hard-soft dynamics and its slow, deliberate buildup from aspiration and struggle to transcendence — a structure that recalls both “Dream On” and “Stairway to Heaven” — “Prodigal Blues” could well become a rock standard.
The other allusion to the Bible occurs in “Mark of Caine,” the album’s most amazing song, in which the battle between the will to love and the compulsion to self-destruct comes into boldest relief. Jazzy, clear-toned arpeggios from guitarist Mark Younger-Smith give way to fulminating power chords, and dissonant intervals create an acidic, uneasy air as Idol faces his demons. “Mark of Caine” urges, “Don’t hold back/The power to love,” but the lesson is a costly one, with references to “the tracks of my arms” darkening the horizons.
On “Trouble With the Sweet Stuff,” Idol confesses to the magnetic pull of temptation upon an addictive personality. Without specifying what saturnalian forms “the sweet stuff” might take, he alternately sings, “Don’t wanna give it up” and “Got to give it up,” while Younger-Smith’s guitar crackles like jagged lightning across a blackened sky. By the close of this dichotomous album — which is conceptually well served, incidentally, by the double-sided vinyl and cassette formats — the singer is wandering back into the light again. “Love Unchained,” “The Right Way” and “License to Thrill” offer an exhilarating release of positive energy, with elements of Fifties-style rock & roll and a sense of rebirth grafted onto a solid, modern pop-metal chassis.
In “Love Unchained,” Idol allows that “a change had to come,” and on Charmed Life he has successfully tempered his disposition without diluting his music. The album is as viscerally exciting and driven as Rebel Yell but is pulled to greater depths by the countervailing forces within the singer. Charmed Life, with its flashes of foreboding power, is the follow-up to L.A. Woman that the Doors never got to make because Jim Morrison fell fatal victim to his abusive lifestyle. Billy Idol knows full well that Morrison’s fate could have been his own; he even covers “L.A. Woman” with Sybaritic abandon, providing an obvious link to the Morrison legend. But in addition to blistering rock & roll and insight into life along the jagged precipice, Charmed Life ultimately holds forth the promise of something greater still: the possibility of survival with the essential elements of a rebellious nature still proudly intact.