Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Mott the Hoople - Mott

Mott (1973) *****

Success under their rhinestone-studded belts, Mott must have known that the followup was crucial:  either they delivered the goods or proved that they were little more than washed-up never-had-beens that David Bowie was gracious enough to toss a bone.  And though it didn't produce a smash as huge as "....Dudes", it did amount to their biggest-selling album in the States, deservedly so:  the band finally fulfill all the misspent promise they'd been building up to.  And it only took five years and five albums to do it.  Mott's only consistently powerful album isn't merely a substantial step forward in terms of songwriting and performance - it's one of the greatest rock albums in rock history, and easily the crowning masterpiece of the genre & era (Glim-Glam, yeah).  The explosive boogie piano chords that open, "All the Way From Memphis," are practically the definition of rock'n'roll, and if you don't cop to that, I doubt that you ever understood Jerry Lee Lewis or purchased a second-hand guitar in a pawnshop.   It's simply one of the greatest valentines to rock'n'roll ever penned, up there with Chuck Berry in his prime and Paul Westerberg bopping out his ode to "Alex Chilton".  The rest of the album matches that standard - as the cliche goes, it's practically a greatest hits of all new material.  The album's conceptual thread of the troubles and travails of a touring rock band may seem self-pitying and banal to modern ears, but at the time not that many had worn such meta-rock cliches into the ground, and few (any?) have done it better since.  Ian Hunter's observations contain the telling detail of an ex-journalist and author of Diary of a Rock'n'Roll Star, and the fact that his band did indeed toil for years in groveling obscurity give his grumblings gravitas.

But most of all what makes it a great rock'n'roll album is that it's perfect driving music:  if there's another album more designed to be played on cassette while cruising, I've yet to find it (and I've spent many hours testing this theory).  Part of that is the flow:  the album's paced flawlessly, with flashy mid-tempo rockers oozing into thoughtful ballads and then back again.  And it's magnificently bookended, as few albums begin so mightily ("Memphis") or end so heartbreakingly ("I Wish I Was Your Mother").  "Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?" Bowie asked in "Young Americans" - yeah, David, this is one of'em, and the pretty mandolin adds the final, conclusive touch.  A bitter lament of alienation that aches powerfully as Hunter plays the role of a damaged punk who aches for tenderness and belonging, but is too cynical and wounded to find either, and it's tearing him apart.  It's as fitting a conclusion to this breathtaking album as "Memphis" was a fittingly rousing album opener.  Between those two benchmarks, the band finds room for giddy pop ("Honaloochie Boogie" - "My hair gets longer as the beat gets stronger/Going to tell Chuck Berry my news"), snarling Clockwork Orange social commentary ("Violence"), only faltering with the flamenco-style instrumental near the end of the record.  In "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople", Hunter recounts the story of how Mott broke up after playing in a converted gas tank in Zurich, mentioning all his bandmates by name, and admitting that playing music for a living is a chump's game but he can't quit.  Lucky for us he didn't.

P.S. Of the bonus tracks, the B-side, "Rose," is a fine piano ballad - it didn't graduate to the album for obvious reasons (it wasn't quite good enough).  But that says more about the strength of the 9 songs that did make it to Mott than any real weakness of "Rose".  And R.E.M. namechecked it in "Man on the Moon," many moons later:  "Mott the Hoople and the game of life / Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah."  

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