Two decades ago, Steve Perry walked away from a legacy of carefree rockers and sentimental torch songs. His last recordings at the time, bonus tracks on a greatest hits comp, allowed him to stretch his elastic vocal cords to great heights, the likes of which he’d soared to with Journey and. in the early part of his solo career, with “Oh Sherrie.” But then he went into near seclusion, emerging for only the occasional recording session, baseball game or (most quizzically) an Eels concert.
He could be forgiven for his absence because it was easy to picture him out there living out his songs, lovin’, touchin’, squeezin’ in private. It turned out to be almost the truth. He’s since revealed that he was suffering from music-biz malaise. A woman he fell in love with encouraged him to return to singing before her death. “She made me promise not to keep isolating myself anymore,” he wrote in an explanatory statement. So he decided to make good on that promise and record Traces, his third solo LP overall and first full-length in nearly a quarter century.
The album is very much a classic Steve Perry record, full of dramatic schmaltz, nostalgia and the occasional rocker. Lead single “No Erasin'” could be a Journey song with its crashing piano and guitar riffs and Perry’s reminiscences of hooking up with an old flame in the backseat of his car. “Sun Shines Gray” is a driving rocker that goes anyway he wants it (lots of slower, quieter parts for the singing and heavier parts in between). And “Most of All” drips with emotion as Perry croons for “the ones who’ve lost their most of all.”
Perry’s voice is still elastic, but it’s huskier, scratchier and, at its worst, hoarser than it was in his glory years. Given his age, 69 years old, it’s in good shape but it’s still surprising, mostly because we haven’t heard from him in decades. The songs are evocative enough – he wrote “Most of All” with “Oh Sherrie” cowriter Randy Goodrum, and members of Semisonic and, curiously, Rob Zombie’s band – but none of them are knockout homeruns in the vein of “Oh Sherrie” (a song so catchy you can hear it in your head simply by reading the title). Moreover, it tends to stay in a sad place and rarely picks up – “Sun Shines Gray” is the hardest rocking song on the standard edition, though the bonus tracks on the deluxe version offer a few more upbeat numbers.
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Many of the songs are too cloying for their own good, but in a weird way that’s what you want from Steve Perry – you want to feel and remember. By that definition, Traces lives up to its title and offers reminders of Perry’s might. When he sings, “No more cryin’, ’cause I wont’ love again, I won’t, I won’t, I won’t” on “No More Cryin’,” he sings it in a way that makes you believe him.