Part Thirty-Four of the Def Leppard Review Series
Original Review: Songs From the Sparkle Lounge (2008)
Finally! Three misfires in a row (Euphoria, X, Yeah!) and Def Leppard finally had a new album that rocked and was worth listening to again. While imperfect, the badly-titled new album Songs From the Sparkle Lounge really felt like an actual effort this time. With the exception of one credit on one song, everything here was written by Def Leppard and only Def Leppard. And — hallelujah! — no ballads. What a refreshing turn of events. A lot of the album was written and recorded on tour. It seemed like Def Leppard were really listening to the fans who said “We’re tired of pop and ballads. Please, write us a rock record again like you used to.”
We mostly got it.
Of course, in the press Leppard exaggerated as they often did, comparing the album to High ‘N’ Dry, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin. And so, the fans knew not to get their hopes up too high. The album rocked, but not like that. The standard version of Sparkle Lounge was a tight eleven tracks, just under 40 minutes. No bloat. But let’s get to the elephant in the room first.
When discussing this album, dissenters often point to track 2, the first single “Nine Lives” as the main offender. As a collaboration with Tim McGraw, it reeks of terrible offences committed by Bon Jovi earlier in the decade. In order to find new success, too many rock bands went to Nashville for fresh names and influences. Fortunately, Japanese fans were able to buy a version of the album including the song without Tim McGraw, and just Joe Elliott ripping the lead vocals. That is definitely a preferred experience. McGraw’s voice makes it sound…not like Def Leppard! The two worlds simply do not mesh. Fortunately “Nine Lives” is not a country song, but a hard rocker with a slight twang in the electric guitars. It’s actually a pretty good song, when you edit Tim out. So there’s that.
However, opening Songs From the Sparkle Lounge is a song you can only describe as “real” Def Leppard! Combining the loopy vibe of the Slang era with the riffiness of Pyromania, “Go” is out of the gates on the right note. It slams. Heavy, modern, guitar-heavy and hooky without pandering to trends. It merely combines some of Leppard’s best and heaviest ingredients in a modern way. The only critique would be the title. “Go” is a word that Leppard overuse. “Go”, “Let’s Go”, “Gotta Let It Go”, “Let It Go”…just too much “going” on!
After “Go”, you have to sit through the Tim McGraw song before we’re back to tunes with integrity. The glam rock “C’Mon C’Mon” was in the vein of that “Pour Some Sugar” sound, ultimately derived from Gary Glitter. It too was a single (to be discussed next time) and sits comfortably in the Hysteria-style box. Not exactly like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin as Joe claimed, but not a bad track if a bit too much like a sequel.
“Love” written by Rick Savage was an important tune and surprisingly the longest at 4:17. It’s the one that they called “not a ballad” and you can get where they were coming from. Yes there’s a soft acoustic intro but the song is bigger and more dramatic than the average ballad. A big heavy chunky section rises towards the end. The acoustic version on the Japanese release could fairly be pigeonholed as a ballad, but the standard album cut it more like Leppard meets Queen. Freddie and the boys seem to be the biggest influence on “Love”, especially vocally.
Phil Collen wrote “Tomorrow” which is one of the most pop of the tunes, sort of in an Adrenalize mold. The chorus is solid and there’s a nice guitar part to bite into. Not a highlight but not a throwaway. Just a good hard rock tune that sounds great in the car come chorus time.
Vivian Campbell contributed the low groove of “Cruise Control”, whose bassline is the main feature, rolling and churning beneath the song. Interesting tune with some truly great and adventurous guitar playing from Viv. Playing for feel and not speed. But the band reverts to their standard form again on the uptempo rocker “Hallucinate”. Though the hooks sound like you’ve heard ’em all before, they’re all welcome to return on this great track.
Another solid song, “Only the Good Die Young”, boasts some mellotron that always seems to recall the Beatles. Not a constituent part of the average Def Leppard rocker, but an enhancement that works well here. Joe ever references a “diamond in the sky” so it’s probably not coincidence. A good tune made better by stepping just slightly outside the box without destroying the box.
Joe’s “Bad Actress” is by far the hardest rocker on the album, going full speed ahead to a place that Leppard had not gone in many years. Pure heavy and reckless rock, pedal to the metal, just givin’ ‘er as much as there is in the gas tank. This, yes this, is what fans had been begging for! Something that really drives but still sounds like Def Leppard. Something that wouldn’t have sounded too out of place in the early years. Finally, we got “Bad Actress” out of them!
The penultimate track “Come Undone” slows it back down to a deliberate 90s pace. Decent album track, but might have been considered filler in an earlier age. Unfortunately, it’s just one of those easy to forget second-last album tracks.
Fortunately, Leppard saved the best track for last: “Gotta Let It Go”, which rocks so hard on the chorus that it might just rip your head off. This Vivian contribution opens with deceivingly soft drum programs before absolutely exploding on the epic chorus. It’s a brilliant slice of songwriting from the Irish rock wizard, and the way the lead and backing vocals overlap on the chorus is just the kind of thing Def Leppard do so exceptionally well. An absolute triumph that leaves a sweet taste in the mouth when the album is complete. This kind of closer invites repeat listens.
Sparkle Lounge ends as it began: rocking.
Fortunately for Def Leppard, a young American fan of both them and Tim McGraw was hitting brand new heights in her fresh solo career. At just 19 years old, she was born while Def Leppard were still the biggest rock band in the universe. So, leaning even further into country music, Def Leppard would gain a lot of attention from a new younger crowd thanks to their big fan Taylor Swift. It seemed a strange move for Leppard to make while they were just starting to rock again, but we’ll discuss the Swift collaboration in a future instalment.
Though Songs From the Sparkle Lounge does contain some fillers and some cuts that fail to stick in the memory, there are no outright “deletes” except arguably the McGraw track. It doesn’t even fit with the vibe of the album. The Leppard version should have been in the main album sequence, with the McGraw version as a bonus track and single in special markets. Guaranteed, this album would be better remembered if that was the case.
- The Early Years Disc One – On Through the Night
- The Early Years Disc Two – High N’ Dry
- The Early Years Disc Three – When The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Live at the New Theater Oxford – 1980
- The Early Years Disc Four – Too Many Jitterbugs – EP, singles & unreleased
- The Early Years Disc 5 – Raw – Early BBC Recordings
- The Early Years 79-81 (Summary)
- Pyromania Live – L.A. Forum, 11 September 1983
- Soundtrack From the Video Historia – Record Store Tales
- In The Round In Your Face DVD
- “Let’s Get Rocked” – The Wait for Adrenalize – Record Store Tales
- Live at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
- Vault: Def Leppard’s Greatest Hits / Limited Edition Live CD
- Video Archive
- “Slang” CD single
- I Got A Bad Feeling About This: Euphoria – Record Store Tales
- Rarities 2
- Rarities 3
- Rarities 4
- Cybernauts – Live
- Cybernauts – The Further Adventures of the Cybernauts (bonus disc)
- Best Of (UK)
- Rock Of Ages: The Definitive Collection
- Yeah! Bonus CD With Backstage Interviews
- Yeah…Nah! – Record Store Tales
35. “C’Mon C’Mon” (12″ picture disc)
36. CMT Crossroads (DVD with Taylor Swift)
38. Yeah! II
39. Yeah! Live
40. Mirror Ball – Live & More (Japanese import)
41. iTunes re-recordings