WHETHER sparked by inspiration or boredom, every successful rocker, it seems, has to make at least one self-conscious retreat into his or her musical past. The new albums by Neil Young and Billy Joel instruct us in the perils of these nostalgic exercises by dragging us mercifully through the '50s and '60s.
For the past 15 years, no singer-songwriter of the post-Dylan era, not even Bob Dylan, has as convincingly balanced commercial success and artistic integrity as has Young. With only his quavering tenor and eccentric vision for anchors, Young has swung from pastoral hippie to primitive rocker with such a comic lack of trendiness that even the punks grant him begrudging respect.
It is the compelling and highly personal nature of Young's artistic past that renders his latest album, a mundane piece of '50s revivalism called "Everybody's Rockin' " (Geffen GHS4013), such a horrible misreading of his idiosyncratic talents.
Although the cover, featuring a greasy Young in classic pink and black, evokes a rockabilly image, "Everybody's Rockin' " leans away from the compulsive twitch of rockabilly in favor of a straightforward recital of '50s rock 'n' roll styles. The elemental piano, sax and harmonica fills, the ubiquitous doo-wah backgrounds, and covers like Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City" all echo classic rhythm and blues. Even Young's originals, like "Kinda Fonda Wanda" or "Jelly Roll," are such plebeian three-chord rockers that when asked where you have heard this before, you are forced to answer, "Everywhere."
Sung in a sea of echo and straitjacketed by the narrow logic of '50s rock 'n' roll, Young simply can't find any room for his wacky, desperate persona or obsessively sloppy guitar attacks. Only on "Wonderin' " does Young escape the tyranny of his self-imposed musical sock hop, turning in one of his characteristically melodic and brooding folksy romances.
If nothing else, "Everybody's Rockin' " stands as a warning against this type of offhand professional dilettanteism masquerading as historical inspiration or reclamation. The broadly comic and emotionally direct terrain of '50s rock is an uncomfortable setting in the shaky hands of an ironist like Young. If Young's recent foray into electronics on his "Transformer" album at least earned some perplexed faces, this hepcat move deserves little more than a shrug.
It's much harder to shake off Billy Joel's return to the glory days of rock on "Innocent Man" (Columbia QC38837), simply because Joel's artistic conceits remain so overblown that it is impossible just to hum along with his commercial ditties.
Following his self-absorbed populist score, "The Nylon Curtain," "Innocent Man" is supposed to be a playful celebration of the romance and innocence of Joel's adolescence. Here, Joel transforms his facile but versatile command of the pop vocabulary into some exacting recreations of the doo-wah, rhythm and blues, and soul music of the late '50s and '60s. As stylistically accurate and as melodically assured as this album is, it achieves few moments of genuine romance or innocence.
From "Uptown Girl," an uncanny recreation of the shrill line of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, to "Easy Money," a parodistic slab of Memphis soul complete with bogus grunts, Joel wanders about his musical childhood in a daze of nostalgic reverie. Some of the songs are quite good, however. "Careless Talk" has the gentle Latin sway of classic Ben E. King, and "Leave a Tender Moment Alone" captures the grace and soul of Carole King's best work. But Joel's rubbery voice is pushed into such a chameleonlike display of stylized attitudes that not only his sincerity is in question, but also his whole identity.
Song after song, Joel nails a sound, a style or an era squarely on the head, driving it right past your heart into a self-congratulatory display of musical accomplishment. Only on an a capella piece called "The Longest Time" does Joel stay simple and affectionate, avoiding the rising tide of melodrama he inflicts on most of his compositions. Although Joel's pen and ear remain faultlessly professional, his talents have always owed more to the bombast of Broadway than the agonies of the street corner. No matter how sincere Joel's affections for the top-40 radio of yesteryear and the adolescent passions it captured, "Innocent Man" retains the thoroughly adult and calculated edge of a pro writing from a piano stool.
If the sounds of these contemporary artists mucking around in the past are decidedly uninspirational, you might switch gears with Big Daddy, a '50s revival band that mucks around in the '80s in almost hilarious fashion on its self-titled debut (Rhino LP852). Imagine the shallow funk of "Superfreak," the cool alienation of "Hotel California" or the schmaltzy "Ebony and Ivory," all rescued from the seriousness of the '80s by nonsensical doses of doo-wah, Chuck Berry and rockabilly. Sound funny? It is for a song or two, which about matches Young's and Joel's efforts.