Here’s the raw and touching spectacle of a rock & roll troublemaker seriously trying to build a new life. Iggy Pop once was dangerously bad. In his screaming prime as a precursor of punk during the early ’70s, he’d writhe himself bloody on stage, then incite his audience to throw things and even to beat him up.
Now he’s revered as a living legend of rock. And this past year he became a minor cult-movie hero, too: He was John Waters’ inspired choice to play the bad kids’ battered patriarch in Cry-Baby.
His latest album, Brick by Brick, shows him getting serious. Having hated life so much he almost killed himself, he now has painfully identified exactly what it was he hated. Partly it’s social evils like homelessness and racism. But mostly it’s dishonesty, especially — after a life spent in rock & roll — the dishonesty of glamour and fame. The notion of a living legend, it’s safe to bet, means nothing to him. ”I heard a lotta big talk,” he sings in ”Starry Night,” a jaunty song spiced with quasi-African guitar. ”Which country is strongest?/who plays the best guitar?/who f— cares/under the stars.”
He means every word; he painstakingly tells us to go to the desert, look up at the stars, and see for ourselves how false our lives have been. He sings all that with a bare-souled blend of innocence, bravado, and the bitterness of someone who repeatedly has been hurt.
His musicians are an extraordinary group. They include the highly emotional heartland rocker John Hiatt; Kate Pierson of the B-52’s; David Lindley, Los Angeles studio wizard and multi-instrumentalist, who’s responsible for the quasi- African guitar; Slash, the lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses; and Kenny Aronoff, John Cougar Mellencamp’s powerful drummer.
But here’s the sad part. All this talent — and all Iggy Pop’s sincerity — adds up to less than the sum of its parts. There’s an abrasive purity in his lyrics and singing that isn’t matched either by the band’s playing or by the songs themselves. Musically speaking, this album is merely better-than-average rock & roll, even when it snarls in the darkness of the gutter, as in ”Pussy Power” (a song about enslavement to sex), or drives forward with something verging on real longing, as in ”Candy,” a duet with Kate Pierson.
But then the high-class anonymity of better-than-average rock & roll might, deep down, be just what Iggy Pop wants. If he means what he sings, he’d surely insist to the end that he wasn’t anybody special.
Brick by Brick