On the front cover, which is stunning, there are several things of note. Rick photographs better here than he ever has in 32 1/2 unnaturally handsome years, resplendent in a jacket of rock & roll (embroidered) velvet. He’s gripping his Les Paul Gibson with both hands, and with the same tenacity that’s kept him going through the dubious success of his recent career. Right above his elegantly coifed head, in thin but emphatic lettering, is the name of the first bona fide smasheroo he’s had in God knows how long.
“Garden Party” isn’t the only song of self-revelation Rick has ever recorded — there was, after all, “Teenage Idol” way back when (“Some people call me a Teenage Idol/Some people say they envy me/I guess they got no way of knowing/How lonesome I can be”) — but it has a surprisingly intimate production that helps the earnestness ring true. His singing is clearer and stronger here than anywhere else on the album, and better in tune with the lyrics, too. And he’s singing about something that’s both simple and specific (almost too much so, what with the dash of name-dropping), an effectively limited subject that works perfectly with the controlled vocal and muted, bouncy backup.
But Rick is much more ambitious as singer, writer and producer than “Garden Party” would indicate. Most of the album pursues both a bigger sound and loftier sentiments, with mixed results. He sounds like a different, heavily overdubbed man — stronger, but less distinctive — on the version of Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You,” which provides a fine showcase for the A-1 Stone Canyon Band (who take a nice, if irrelevant, jazz-rock break in mid-song). Here, and on the album’s other hardish rockers (“I Wanna Be with You,” “Don’t Let Your Good-bye Stand,” and “Let It Bring You Along,” none of which Rick wrote) the sound is tense and clean, agreeable but a little strained.
“Let It Bring You Along” is the most interesting cut on the album, because it beautifully exemplifies the unresolvedly schizoid qualities of Rick’s style. The song is alternately gentle and driving, quiet and loud, with no real transitions between the two moods (only a tiny bit of ooh-ah, which sounds like a straight steal from middle-kingdom Beatles). As for the lyrics, a little couplet like “Is she real or just an image?/Did she leave satisfied?” juxtaposes the two distinct temperaments that crop up in Rick’s own compositions. Line one sounds like the guy who wrote “Life” (on his last album), or “Are You Really Real?” here. The second line, its concern both more substantial, is closer to Rick at his least overextended, his most vulnerable, his purest and his best.
For all its oddities of conflicting style, this is both an interesting album and a largely satisfying one. Rick has yet to emerge clearly as a songwriter, but as producer and singer both he seems to know exactly what he wants, even though he isn’t always equipped to do it. He still sounds like he wishes he could belt out “Honky Tonk Woman” (he tried, not long ago). But he also sounds more accepting of his own natural restraint than he’s been in the recent past, and better able to work both with and around his excellent band.