Although they may have money, fame, and hordes of adoring fans, it must be tough to be an iconic rock and roll band. Every time they release a new batch of material, they run the risk of sounding either too much like their previous selves, or not enough. Worse still is being confronted with the dreaded “return to form” cliché.
For a band like Cheap Trick, it’s even dicier. To which “form” should they return? The sardonic hard rock of their debut? The bubblegum power pop of “Dream Police”? The AOR of “The Flame”? After over four decades in the biz, they’ve covered a lot of ground, so deciding which direction to take presents an ongoing quandary that I don’t envy.
While many bands with similar longevity have changed their lineups over the years, Cheap Trick has remained surprisingly consistent, with the exception of bassist Tom Petersson’s brief departure in the mid-1980s. The recent, nasty, and extremely public dispute between Petersson, singer Robin Zander, guitarist Rick Nielsen, and longtime drummer Bun E. Carlos has left an indelible stain on the band’s legacy, regardless of whose “side” you’re on.
Let’s assess where Cheap Trick stand in 2017. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2016. They have a new album called We’re All Allright, another of the many self-referential quips for which this band is well-known, this time referencing one of their biggest and best hits, 1978’s “Surrender.” Bun E. Carlos has been replaced by Daxx Nielsen, Rick’s son.
This isn’t the first Cheap Trick album without Carlos. Last year’s strangely titled Bang Zoom Crazy… Hello also featured Daxx, but We’re All Allright is the first album to display his name on songwriting credits. It is however, the third album to give songwriting credits to mega-producer Julian Raymond. One could argue that, for better or worse, this is the band’s “Julian Raymond phase.” It’s not too hard to see a difference between 2006’s pre-Raymond album Rockford and the last few releases. There’s a distinctively harder element to their albums as of late, even as glossy pop ballads are interspersed throughout.
The main exception to this “formula” would be 2007’s The Latest, an album that not only consisted of older, unreleased tunes, but also showcased the influence of the series of concerts in which Cheap Trick covered the entirety of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For this longtime fan, The Latest was the best and most consistent material they’d recorded and released since 1983’s Next Position Please.
So what about We’re All Allright?
Musically, the album is outstanding, veering from heavy to hooky to raunchy to sublime and many points in between. All of the songs are ridiculously catchy; listening to the album over the last few weeks means that I’ve had a lot of time to get used to it, but I didn’t expect to have so many of the melodies stuck in my head for hours on end. “Lolita” has a superb, swoony bridge, while the crunch of “Brand New Name on a New Tattoo” and “Listen to Me” feel like outtakes from 1982’s severely underrated One on One. Cheap Trick may be known as a rock band but they sure can sell a power ballad, and “Floating Down” feels like another beautifully written chapter in their career-long tribute to John Lennon.
Zander’s voice is the best rock and roll has to offer and despite being unable to hit those high notes like he used to, he still sounds astonishingly vital. Nielsen’s licks might not be quite as iconic as they used to be, but why reinvent the wheel? He still sounds fantastic. Enjoying Petersson’s bass riffs proves more difficult as they are frequently buried in the mix, but when they pop up, they’re glorious. As for Daxx Nielsen’s drumming? It certainly fits the band’s current sound, but I can’t help miss the idiosyncrasies of Carlos.
What’s really disappointing is the lack of clever lyrics. There was no shortage of self-referential quips on The Latest, both musically and lyrically, but more than that, the album boasted an overall feeling of a deeply personal creation, or at least as personal as the frequently ironic Cheap Trick gets. Despite not being about him at all, one felt the distinctive stamp of Rick Nielsen’s twisted heart all over “The Ballad of Burt And Linda,” a slightly less hybristophiliac update of his life-long fascination with weirdos.
This is why it’s such a bummer that most of the lyrics on We’re All Allright could have been penned by any generic songwriter. A major exception is the gorgeous “The Rest of My Life,” which nods to the Beatles (“tomorrow never knows”) and the ironic romanticism of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”:
“If I could, I would
But I can’t, so I won’t
Love you forever
My, just the rest of my life”
Such sentiments are supported by a song that’s the perfect balance of hard and soft, that Cheap Trick sweet spot that fans wait for every time the band releases a new album. Maybe We’re All Allright doesn’t have lyrics as memorable as other Cheap Trick albums, but the music itself is marvelous enough that I can forgive them that misstep. Here’s looking at you, ELO Kiddies.
We’re All Allright was released on July 23 from Big Machine Records. Bonus tracks include new tunes “Like A Fly” and “If You Still Want My Love,” along with a stunning cover of The Move’s “Blackberry Way.” The Japanese release includes live tracks “Wake Up Tomorrow” and “The In Crowd”
15: Hershey, PA: Giant Center
17: Boston, MA: Blue Hills Bank Pavilion
18: Saratoga Springs, NY: Saratoga Performing Arts Center
20: Wantagh, NY: Nikon at Jones Beach Theater
21: Darien Center, NY: Darien Lake Performing Arts Center
22: Holmdel, NJ: PNC Bank Arts Center
25: Bristow, VA: Jiffy Lube Live
26: Virginia Beach, VA: Veterans United Home Loans Amphitheater at Virginia Beach
28: Nashville, TN: Ascend Amphitheater
30: Pelham, AL: Oak Mountain Amphitheatre
01: West Palm Beach, FL: Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre
02: Tampa, FL: MIDFLORIDA Credit Union Amphitheatre
05: Charlotte, NC: PNC Music Pavilion
06: Raleigh, NC: Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek Amphitheater
08: Cincinnati, OH: Riverbend Music Center
09: Chicago, IL: Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island
11: Clarkston, MI: DTE Energy Music Theatre
12: Burgettstown, PA: KeyBank Pavilion
13: Noblesville, IN: Klipsch Music Center
15: Kansas City, MO: Starlight Theatre
16: Maryland Heights, MO: Hollywood Casino Amphitheater – St. Louis
19: Woodlands, TX: Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
20: Austin, TX: austin360 Amphitheater
23: Albuquerque, NM: Isleta Amphitheater
24: Phoenix, AZ: Ak-Chin Pavilion
26: West Valley City, UT: USANA Amphitheatre
29: Chula Vista, CA: Sleep Train Amphitheatre
30: Los Angeles, CA: Greek Theatre
01: Marysville, CA: Toyota Amphitheater
02: Mountain View, CA: Shoreline Amphitheatre
04: Morrison, CO: Red Rocks Amphitheatre
08: Ridgefield, WA: Sunlight Supply Amphitheater
09: Auburn, WA: White River Amphitheatre