It’s easy to sneer right back at Billy Idol. He shakes his fist a lot. He wears leather underwear. He shampoos with glue. The appearance of snarling Idol replicas in David Lee Roth and Talking Heads videos reflects his successful construction of a visual signature, which is nearly a prerequisite for Eighties pop stars. But Idol’s rebellious pose lacks humanity. Until now, he has hidden behind the frozen emotion of a sneer. On his new record, Whiplash Smile, he tries to establish some distance from his image.
With Rebel Yell, Idol’s third album following the demise of his punk band, Generation X, Idol joined the cover-story, multiplatinum, Grammy nominee circle of megastars. But the compromises he’s made along the way seem to have made him ambivalent about his success. And the end of his seven-year relationship with dancer Perri Lister may have helped to put his stardom in perspective for him. During the painful, introspective year and a half Idol spent making the record, he returned to the music he grew up with. He covers William Bell and Booker T. Jones’s Stax-era “To Be a Lover” (a wise choice for the first single, since pianist Richard Tee’s gospel punctuations and a female backing chorus distinguish it from Idol’s past work), and his own lyrics refer to Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent and Johnnie Ray and recycle images and song titles from Bob Dylan, Jackie Wilson, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the Rolling Stones.
From “Dancing with Myself” to “Flesh for Fantasy,” Idol’s songwriting has had an estranged, almost alien point of view. But on Whiplash Smile, the chronicle of a “real person working his own life out” (as Idol puts it in a publicity bio), he brandishes all the confessional humanity he can muster. Unfortunately, Idol’s repertoire is mostly limited to hackneyed romantic themes and stale imagery. Tears well up in five of the ten songs, and when Idol isn’t “crying” (rhymes with “dying”), he’s declaring his “desire” (rhymes with “fire” and “higher”).
The steamy propulsion of Idol’s music, which takes the rock-disco style of Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” to its sonic limit, is more persuasive evidence of his personality. Although producer Keith Forsey and guitarist Steve Stevens receive much of the credit for the thrill of Idol’s records, the mediocrity of many of their outside projects (including Forsey’s handling of Charlie Sexton’s debut and Stevens’s work on the Top Gun soundtrack as well as his sessions with the Thompson Twins and Ric Ocasek) indicate that Idol galvanizes their collaboration. On Whiplash Smile, Forsey records the synthesized and sequenced rhythm tracks with as much force as possible, and Stevens’s robot noises pierce the metronomic pulse.
In “Worlds Forgotten Boy,” Idol calls for a “miracle joy … a rock & roll boy” to rouse him from his lethargy, and Stevens responds with a solo that crackles like a severed telephone wire. Although Stevens frequently approaches the noisy rush of Sonic Youth or Einstürzende Neubauten, this moody album shows that he’s capable of more than careening volume. The acoustic shuffle “Sweet Sixteen” (that’s the Berry reference) recalls the texture of “Eyes Without a Face.” And in “Man for All Seasons,” which recycles Stones and Jackie Wilson titles within the first chorus, Stevens follows his most metallish chords with a light-fingered eight bar run reminiscent of George Benson.
“I’ve got the summertime blues,” Idol sighs in “All Summer Single.” Even on his most despondent songs, he sings like a cross between Elvis Presley and a horny coyote, with an indomitable resolve to survive despite his grim conclusions about relationships. “All Summer Single” and “Worlds Forgotten Boy” proffer fun as the antidote to heartbreak. In “Don’t Need a Gun,” Idol refers to Elvis (“the dying light”) and to Johnnie Ray (“He’s always crying”), then vows not to succumb to a similar fate. This sense of resolve continues in “Fatal Charm,” perhaps the oddest song Idol has written. After citing the “skin and bone, tear drop too/Down on maggie’s farm,” he says, “I lived that life/I lived it through/I cut them.” It’s a boastful, gloating reminder of how Idol escaped from the punk clique in England (“maggie’s farm” is a reference to Margaret Thatcher as well as the title of a Dylan song) and made records as platinum as his hair. It’s vain and maybe even nasty, but it exposes more distinctive emotion than all his rote diary jottings about betrayal and commitment.
This absorption with his own stardom is a strange fate for Idol, who chose his surname in ’76 when he was just another London punk spitting at established rock stars. Now that he’s a media idol himself, his moniker has ironic repercussions that invite accusations of hypocrisy and compromise. Idol is smart enough to recognize this quandary, and he’s sincere enough about rock music to want to produce more than just a smattering of great singles. But even though Whiplash Smile is as forceful and dynamic as any album made this year, its trite lyrics prevent it from being the breakthrough he so clearly hoped for.