Fear not, blokes who adore jokes: The Darkness still has a sense of humor.
But you'll have to hunt for it on the British rock group's second album, "One Way Ticket to Hell . . . and Back." Infused with earsplitting vocal harmonies, melodramatic strings, pan flute, bagpipes, sitar soloing and the befuddled ghost of Freddie Mercury, it's a lavishly produced affair that is both exhilarating and flawed.
It's almost as if the conductor holding that ticket -- didn't guide the train quite to hell or back. Instead, it's buried up to its rails in sophomore-album purgatory, where the denizens wear zebra-striped leotards and take themselves a bit too seriously.
That's not to say that "One Way Ticket" isn't among the year's more entertaining albums. It is. For two years the Darkness has had to eyeball the unenviable task of following up its initial cannonball into the pool. The quartet sold 3.5 million copies of its excellent hard-rock debut, "Permission to Land," largely on the strength of a campy single, "I Believe in a Thing Called Love." People either loved or loathed this flamboyant quartet, depending almost solely on their reaction to frontman Justin Hawkins's stratosphere-scraping falsetto.
On "One Way Ticket," choruses are multi-tracked in the rich, majestic tradition of Queen. Beware, haters: Hawkins's schoolgirl squeals now multiply like Agent Smith in "The Matrix Reloaded." It's like being body-slammed by a tidal wave of sissies.
The Darkness recorded at Rockfield Studios near Monmouth, South Wales, under the seasoned ear of Roy Thomas Baker, who produced "Bohemian Rhapsody" in that same facility three decades earlier. But the Darkness isn't Queen. It's the Queen of cheese. Oddly enough, that fact appears to be lost on Hawkins and his band mates -- guitarist brother Dan Hawkins, drummer Ed Graham and new bassist Richie Edwards.
This album is a painstakingly crafted, meticulous work of pop-rock bombast. The '80s hair-metal riffs of the first CD have been replaced with keyboards and orchestral blasts -- yet there's not a single goofy line about band camp. Fans of AC/DC won't find much to headbang about anymore. Journey fans might.
Hawkins punts his endearing lyrical cleverness, instead exploring cliches such as drug abuse (the vibrant, pop-fueled title track) and love gone south ("Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time"). Smartly silly moments are fleeting but rewarding: If you look past the menacing, all-too-rare power riff that supercharges "Bald," you'll realize that Hawkins is lamenting the looming fate of his pate. (And, yes, he did just rhyme "follicle" with "diabolical.")
The incessant Queen vibe threatens to distract. Upon the arrival of the final track -- the album's second mega-ballad, "Blind Man" -- you feel like scanning the liner-note credits for Wayne and Garth on vocals and air guitar. Yet somehow the grandiose rock-opera arrangements that embellish standouts "Hazel Eyes" and "English Country Garden" are so joyfully British that they transcend their flagrantly ostentatious demeanor.
At just 10 songs -- as was the case with "Permission to Land" -- "One Way Ticket" isn't really long enough to allow its blemishes to spoil its pomp-rockin' glamour. Underneath all the Darkness's newfound sonic makeup, we all know -- or at least hope -- that a clown still lurks.