The buffed body and trademark sneer on the cover of Billy Idol’s latest Devil’s Playground are the first clues Idol is back in stride. In the early 90s he veered seriously off track embracing digital music and techno beats, but a 10-year layoff appears to have performed wonders.
Since his days as a punk pioneer leading the band Generation X in the mid-70s, Billy Idol has been most successful when he embraces an over-the-top, almost cartoonish, version of himself as a rock bad boy with vicious hooks. The result, at its most successful, is pure entertainment. Devil’s Playground is a welcome return of the Idol of the 80s – sneer, fist, peroxide blonde and crackling pop hooks intact.
The album kicks off in satisfying form with the rock of “Super Overdrive” giving way to the punk speed of “World Comin’ Down.” Lyrical sillyness abounds, but, filled with Idol’s growl and Steve Stevens’ guitar pyrotechnics, these songs are likely to raise a smile. The sound of corporate rock nearly shows its ugly head on “Rat Race,” but it’s quickly buried in the 80s pop glory of “Sherri.” Billy Idol tries a bit too hard to reprise the peak he reached on Rebel Yell over 20 years ago with his current single “Scream,” but he more than makes up for that misguided effort with a new dysfunctional Christmas classic “Yellin’ At the Christmas Tree.”
Lest the listener imagine Devil’s Playground is merely an effort to recover past glories, Idol does stretch his boundaries somewhat here, and the results are a bit mixed.
His gravelly growl does not carry the soulfulness of the late Johnny Cash as painfully evident on the Cash-inflected “Lady Do Or Die.” As he has proved in the past with masterful reworkings of Tommy James classics, Billy Idol is more at home with 60s pop, echoing Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry” on the track “Cherie.” The effort to craft a heavy metal epic on the album’s closer “Summer Running” is a bit of a misstep as it would require us to take him more seriously than we’ve ever wanted to.
Credit for the successes on Devil’s Playground does not go simply to Billy Idol. Producer Keith Forsey was a key craftsman of 80s pop-rock from the Rebel Yell album to Simple Minds’ epic “Don’t You Forget About Me.” Now nearing 60, Forsey proves he can still craft a song into an instantly memorable soundscape.
Another key element of the Billy Idol sound is guitarist Steve Stevens. Devil’s Playground is the first album to reunite Idol and Stevens since the end of the 80s, and it is obvious their chemistry is one of the great pop-rock partnerships. Billy Idol’s recorded output suffered without Stevens and Stevens’ journeyman work never approached the success he reached as lead guitar on Rebel Yell and Whiplash Smile.
Will the quality of this new album be enough to excite a new generation of fans? “Scream” is climbing national rock radio playlists giving him a chance, but leaving the crystal ball a bit fuzzy on future predictions. Regardless of Idol’s prospects for commercial success, do yourself a favor and listen to this album and then marvel that the man in the “Scream” video with a whiplash smile happily tearing off his shirt for fans, turns 50 this November.Powered by Sidelines