The Who’s Odds and Sods proved that reviewing the footnotes and marginalia of a band’s back pages could excite more than just a handful of cultists. Serving up 13 B sides, rarities and covers (with some remixing and rerecording), Def Leppard’s Retro Active is a cheeky twist on the strategy. Def Lep’s five-album canon hardly rivals the Who’s venerable history — but Retro Active is a powerful package nonetheless.
Fanatic perfectionism has helped Def Leppard sell 35 million albums. It’s no surprise then that their closet cleansing divulges no dirty laundry — no jams or coy experiments. For the megaplatinum sheen of the band’s Hysteria and Adrenalize, however, Retro substitutes a rougher texture.
Sweet’s “Action” and Mick Ronson’s “Only After Dark” render the group’s ’70s roots, and glitter-rock’s high-voltage pop sounds as fresh as ever in the hands of these heirs. Of the originals, “From the Inside,” with members of Hothouse Flowers on mandolin, tin whistle and piano, departs furthest from the band’s usual style: It’s revved-up folk rock with dark anti-drug lyrics.
Otherwise, this is standard Lep — and that standard is high. Again, they remind us — with the E-bow guitar and percussive intro to “Fractured Love,” the elegant acoustic guitar set inside the electric guitar assault of “I Wanna Be Your Hero” — of their passion for detail. And with Joe Elliott’s supple voice, the crafty guitars of Phil Collen, Vivian Campbell and the late Steve Clark and the band’s trademark harmony vocals, they reassert their musicianship. But their chief strength has always been the songs they write, and Retro Active underscores that appeal. From the Zeplike “Desert Song” to “She’s Too Tough” and its feisty rock & roll, from the power ballad “Two Steps Behind” to “Ride Into the Sun,” a raver from their 1979 debut, this is premium pop-metal — sharp hooks and engaging thunder.