For better or for worse, the Eagles epitomized American rock in the '70s. Emerging from the country rock boom of the late '60s, the Eagles articulated the ideal of laid-back, suburban America, making the band members megastars within a few years. As the current of popular culture began to shift, the Eagles followed, coining the phrase "life in the fast lane," to describe the aggressive narcissism attached to that decade's vision of the good life.
As the '70s came to a close, however, so did the Eagles' reign. After releasing a lackluster live album, the band officially broke up in 1981, leaving its members to sort out the new decade through their various solo careers. The Age of Reagan perplexes them as much individually as it did collectively, however, rendering their albums both ineffective and irrelevant.
Don Henley's problem is that he feels obliged to make a statement with his music, but is increasingly without anything of consequence to say. His first solo effort, "I Can't Stand Still," managed a fair head of steam, in part because Henley was eager to get back at the press for its coverage of his personal peccadilloes ("Nobody's Business" and "Dirty Laundry"), but the closest Henley came to taking a stand was in complaining that "Johnny Can't Read." Still, that's better than he does with "Building the Perfect Beast" (Geffen 24026-1), his latest effort. It isn't that it lacks issues; in fact, the title cut goes so far as to try to condense a century of medical ethics into four verses and a chorus. Yet, as lofty and esteemed as he has occasion to be, his treatments are less than profound. For instance, many thinkers have pondered the problems of human life extended beyond its normal limits, but has anyone ever framed the issue so inelegantly as Henley does when he sings, "Turn us all into Methuselah -- but where are we gonna park?"
Granted, part of the difficulty is in not knowing how seriously Henley ought to be taken. Consider the line "Sharper than a serpent's tongue"; is that sarcasm or simply an ignorance of Shakespeare showing through? Certainly, the album's most obvious attempt at lightheartedness falls flat, from cohort Danny Kortchmar's muddled "All She Wants to Do Is Dance" to the mock-macho "Man With a Mission," but that's mitigated somewhat by Henley's paeans to the purifying power of love ("Not Enough Love in the World" and "Land of the Living"), which turn romantic sincerity into an unintentional laugh riot.
Henley's most unfortunate weakness is his fondness for the ponderous, which manifests itself in a number of ways. On one song, "You Can't Make Love," he pulls a pun from a common phrase and then beats it to death for 3 1/2 minutes. On another, "Sunset Grill," he bloats what might have been a discreet homage to Raymond Chandler with an orchestral coda that sounds like bad imitation Quincy Jones. Most embarrassing of all is "Drivin' With Your Eyes Closed," an attempt to update the Zeitgeist wit of "Life in the Fast Lane," which ends up tripping over unnecessary references to Baudelaire and Rimbaud. In the end, about the only song on "Building the Perfect Beast" that works on its own terms is the lost-love weeper "You're Not Drinking Enough," but then, that's one of Kortchmar's.
If Don Henley's songs falter because they bite off more than he can chew, that's still better than what his old writing partner, Glenn Frey, has been grinding out. Most of the messages contained in "The Allnighter" (MCA 5501), Frey's second album, could be written on the head of a pin with a ball point pen. The title tune, for instance, is Frey's ludricrous attempt to one-up the Dominoes' "Sixty Minute Man"; "Sexy Girl," which follows, pursues its subject with all the wit and insight of a Penthouse magazine photo caption. Why, he seems to ask, waste time on subtleties?
Frey's first solo foray, "No Fun Aloud," at least balanced his lyrical shortcomings with solidly grounded rock 'n' roll, but even this is missing from "The Allnighter." The closest Frey gets to roots is an overblown Chuck Berry rip called "Better in the U.S.A.," a bit of jingoism that could set the New Right back a decade. Instead, he wastes his time and ours on flatulent funk, displaying on "Living in Darkness" perhaps the weakest falsetto ever to come out of Detroit.
Timothy B. Schmidt, by contrast, has a teriffic falsetto. Unfortunately, that's about all he has going for him on "Playin' It Cool" (Asylum 9 60359-1), his solo debut. When he indulges in the high harmonies that earned him his spot in the Eagles, as he does to great effect on "Voices" and "So Much in Love," it makes for pleasant, if wholly inconsequential, listening. But it takes more than harmony parts to hold an album together, and sadly, Schmidt is no great shakes as a songwriter. His compositions roll by aimlessly, with only the occasional blast of guitar to distinguish one from the next. Which is a shame because Schmidt actually pulled better performances from his all-star cast, especially guitarists Steve Lukather and Joe Walsh, than his fellow former Eagles managed from theirs. Maybe next time Schmidt should simply play it smart and rely on the writing of others.