The first thing I knew or saw of the album was the cover, reproduced in some music magazine or other. I was immediately pissed off: self-titled album, black-and-white cover shot? How dare they deliberately invoke such symbolism with the likes of Busted so close in their rear-view mirror? Sure, their last album was half-good…but it was half-bad, too. It certainly was not the kind of album to inspire confidence in a follow-up that was going out of its way to ape the iconography of the band’s then two-decade old debut masterpiece.
As the release date loomed closer, the buzz started to build: this was, in fact, a real Cheap Trick album, one true to the spirit of their ‘70s work without being either overly studied or bathed in too many coats of gloss. A lot of critics were calling it their best since Dream Police, and some of them didn’t even sound completely like they were being paid to say it. You’ve got to remember, folks: the internet was in its infancy as a mainstream-adopted thing at the time. 1997 was near the very end of the old world where such things were concerned: for all intents and purposes, there were still no MP3 leaks yet. You had to wait for something to actually be released, and then you had to pay your money and take your chances once it happened.
And so I did. I was upstate in college in 1997, and a friend of mine and I drove into Syracuse the day Cheap Trick hit shelves. The whole way there, I was semi-bitching about it: “Seriously – they haven’t made a front-to-back good album in something like fifteen years. Why do I believe this one will be any different?” At the time, it was a fair question. We got there, grabbed the disc, popped it in, and started to head back home. After about one minute into the album and the attendant “holy shit, maybe they actually did it…”, all talking gave way to serious listening. My favorite band was literally being reborn before my very ears: vibrant, invested and uncompromised in a manner in which I’d never heard them before on a new album. I was stunned and speechless. Needless to say, both title and art design now made perfect sense and seemed 100% appropriate to the album’s content.
Fourteen years on, I still feel the same. Trying to single out individual standouts on this album is nearly as ridiculous a task as trying to do the same with that other self-titled album they have: everything here is successful both taken individually and as a part of a greater whole. If I must, I’ll say that “Hard to Tell” may be the definitive Cheap Trick song, a great choice for someone who’s never heard the band before. To manage such a feat two decades into a band’s career is nearly unheard of; to sustain it for a whole album is damn near impossible.
The 1997 model Cheap Trick is also the album that made them relevant to me in the present tense. Much as I adored the ‘70s classics, they were made before my time. Talking to friends about Cheap Trick always had to be done with the “their old stuff is way better” disclaimer. In April 1997, that all changed: here was Cheap Trick, of all bands, with a vital new album that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anything by the bands they’d inspired in the interim. Not in a pandering, “we can do young, too!” kind of way, but with the easy confidence of a well-earned timelessness. It is the album that cemented their status as my favorite band, and much like their best work of their early career, it has aged extraordinarily well. At the time, Rick Nielsen claimed that they’d self-titled it because it was “the first album of the second half of our career.” How completely and happily correct he was.
We’ll leave this one where we began it, then: with the cover art. Once I came to accept it as appropriate to the album’s contents, I also came to see how brilliantly clever it is in its own right. Sure, it just looks like a black-and-white shot of the band’s equipment, but look more closely for a minute:
Got it yet? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t – it’s a bit on the subtle side. Think of the album covers for In Color, Heaven Tonight, At Budokan and Lap of Luxury: the ones with the “cute guys” (Zander, Petersson) on the front and the “weirdos” (Nielsen, Carlos) on the back. Now, think about exactly whose equipment is on the front cover of the 1997 album: Nielsen’s trademark five-necked guitar and Carlos’ bass drum, with Zander’s guitar and Petersson’s bass represented on the back. Absolutely brilliant: the past both acknowledged and, well, turned on its ear, all at once.
Next week: A break for live albums other than that famous Japanese thing.