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David Styburski
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CD Review: Billy Idol "Devil's Playground"

Given the 12-year gap between new Billy Idol albums, one would assume that the early-MTV poster boy had plenty of time to refine his creative ideas until they all served one coherent artistic purpose. Idol's latest collection, "Devil's Playground," boggles the mind with its seemingly schizophrenic ambitions, nearly begging the listener to admire it for its astonishingly sloppy pacing and enigmatic approach to humor.Oh, sure, the album contains plenty of generic rockers, straddling the barrier between punk and hair metal, that recall Idol's mid-'80s glory. But it's the artist's bizarre choice of novelty numbers, sandwiched between the loud stuff that could either make or break the disc for fans.

Consider Idol's take on the underground comedic ditty "Plastic Jesus," with lyrics such as "I don't care if it's warm or freezes/As long as I've got my plastic Jesus/Riding along on the dashboard of my car." Instead of augmenting the loony words with obviously goofy instrumentation, he slows the song down and sings over acoustic guitars, turning the track into a retro power ballad. On a Randy Newman record, perhaps, the satirical nature of the vocal would be obvious. But, for all of his fine musical qualities, Idol is probably one of the last singers on the planet from whom the public expects high-brow laughs. As a result, one is left utterly dumbfounded, caught between smiling and puking as the song progresses with Idol sounding more and more serious following each chorus. Logic first suggests that Idol couldn't possibly mean for this track to be taken for anything other than a joke. But then again, in the big book of rock 'n' roll rehab and recovery stories, stranger conversions have become legend.

And as if that wasn't baffling enough, Idol includes a hard-luck Christmas song, "Yellin' at the Christmas Tree," among the album's 13 cuts. The accompanying lyrics are more substantive than those of "Plastic Jesus," detailing the holiday drinking binges of an absent father, but Idol still decides to rock out to the melody with jolly bells as his accompaniment. Instead of achieving the greatness of the Kinks' seasonal tale "Father Christmas," a song about a mugged Santa that has equal amounts of humor and humanity in its message, "Yellin' at the Christmas Tree" becomes too much of a puzzle for the listener to determine its merit.

The most encouraging aspect of "Devil's Playground" concerns Idol's commanding vocal presence. He's been away so long that people have probably forgotten how well he can use his growling abilities to turn loud, dumb songs like "Scream" into irresistible pop. The twangy "Lady Do or Die" boasts an admirable grizzled purr that would have made Johnny Cash proud.Such moments suggest that, given the right material, Idol might still have a few hits left in him. But he has waited too long and donned too much hair gel to ever succeed as punk's version of Randy Newman.

Posted: May 10, 2005 

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