By David Browne
Updated July 21, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

They have come not to praise hair metal but to bury it. In the recent publicity for their absurdly delayed second album, Because They Can, Nelson barely resemble the flaxen-haired twins who went double platinum four years ago with ultra-buffed pop metal. Posing solemnly with their acoustic guitars, Matthew and Gunnar now sport unbleached brown hair, fashionably worn jeans, and crisp tees. As if auditioning for the new VH1, they declare in a press statement that they sound more ”organic,” more like the Eagles or their late dad, self-effacing rock pioneer Rick Nelson. They seem utterly ashamed of their previous incarnation as the ultimate hair-metal band.

In theory, it’s a shrewd tactic. After all, ’80s hair metal is as moth-eaten as Dee Snider’s Twisted Sister duds, and the widespread appeal of the Hootie-Sheryl Crow contingent is directly related to their earthy, streamlined-grunge music and wardrobe — call it Scrunge rock. Because They Can is Nelson’s attempt to jog alongside the bandwagon of the new rock earnestness. As with most Scrunge acts, they want to show that they are sensitive adults who have outgrown their foolish youth and want only to placidly strum and harmonize when they are not recycling their glass and plastic goods.

What a shame, too, because Nelson could truly help wrap up the century in a big way: spearheading the return of hair metal!

Surely you remember hair metal. A decade ago, it was impossible to turn on MTV and not see a mighty-moussed, spandex-sporting band cavorting with a gaggle of semi-clad video babes, all the while singing booming pop songs with a vaguely metallic edge. The whole shebang was ridiculous, but the spectacle itself was the story. Musically and visually, hair metal was a brazen, smarmy orgy of rock stardom and conquest. Imagine that: a time when rock stars looked and sounded as if they wanted to be stars.

That said, no one but a true nostalgist would want to sit through an entire Whitesnake or Poison album in 1995. But for every bad Mötley Crüe song, the era left behind enough relentless radio anthems — Whitesnake’s ”Here I Go Again,” Ratt’s ”Round and Round,” Def Leppard’s ”Photograph,” Bon Jovi’s ”Livin’ on a Prayer” — for a compilation that would make even a Benedictine monk hum along. More and more, hair metal looks to be rock’s last great silly stand.

A hair-metal revival would certainly be one antidote to the stifling sincerity of Scrunge (it’s also perfect summer drive-time music). And it’s unfortunate Nelson didn’t choose to meet the challenge; they’re naturals. Their first album, 1990’s After the Rain, had all the correct ingredients: gussied-up arena-designed anthems, whammy-bar guitar histrionics, and harmonies so homogenized as to shame milk. Instead, they opted for the gingerly plucked guitars and silken-haired harmonies of Because They Can. The arrangements are as colorless as the brothers’ new mane tones, and when they open their mouths, out come such blandly sung refrains as ”Whenever you start to feel the pain/I’m only a moment away.” In their attempt to go the route of wash-and-wear rock, they iron out every crease.

Matthew and Gunnar haven’t lost their knack for a melody: David Cassidy should record the infectious adult bubblegum of ”Five O’Clock Plane” for his next comeback shot. And when the brothers combine their nouveau folksy approach with a cheesy pop hook, they occasionally stumble upon an entirely new genre — roots-rock hair metal! But a couple of deflated-Zeppelin instrumentals and an overbaked symphony, ”Nobody Wins in the End,” only serve to take the wind out of the album’s sails.

Whenever rock becomes too self-absorbed, something always comes along to puncture its bubble. So it’s inevitable that hair metal will return, with or without Nelson. At the South by Southwest music industry confab this spring, a seminar on rock fashion had panelists griping about flannel and calling for more glitz, more rock ”heroes.” Soon after, an A & R executive at a major label told me that if he found a hair-metal band with good songs, he would sign them in an instant. Sometimes a little goofiness is just what the peroxide doctor ordered. C