THE DARKNESS – One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back (2005 Atlantic)
It was pins and needles, waiting for the new Darkness album in 2005. First Mutt Lange was said to be the producer. Then it was Roy Thomas Baker, who got a test drive on the 2004 remake of “Get Your Hands Off My Woman…Again”. With guys like that at the control panel, you knew the Darkness were going to do something epic. Unfortunately, some people just wanted more of the same Permission To Land style of fun but hard rock. Those folks didn’t want flutes, strings or gui-boards.
“The new Darkness…sucks,” said one of my bosses when I walked in to work at the Record Store one afternoon in late December. We had just received our shipment. “In one song, all he does is sing, ‘I love what you’ve done with your hair,’ over and over again,” complained the boss, who loved raining on my parade. My opinion of the album was the polar opposite.
There’s little question that the band took it too far. Justin Hawkins was knee-deep in drugs and an infatuation with the 80s. One Way Ticket to Hell …And Back is like a busy, manic snapshot of that period in time. The band fired off in all directions, with pompous and bombastic kitchen-sink production backing them up. Bassist Frankie Poullain was also out (the usual “creative differences”) and replaced by the uber-talented Richie Edwards.
The over-production is certainly an issue, especially when so many were attracted to the raw sound of the Darkness. The shrill title track opens with flutes and Gregorian monks, and then Justin takes a snort. “The first line hit me like a kick in the face. Thought I better have another just in case.” A nice thick riff is joined to a soaring multi-layered chorus for that classic Darkness formula. Then the acoustics and a sitar kicks in, because what else do you need on a song about excess? The coke and money must have been flowing right through that recording studio. (At least they saved a little money on the sitar. They didn’t have to hire a player, since Justin could do it. They did hire a flautist.)
“And I love what you’ve done with your hair!” screams Justin on the song that is (obviously) called “Knockers”. It’s pure pop rock with piano, keyboards and slide guitar for that necessary excess. “Is It Just Me?” (a single) strips things down to the basics, because you have to have a few songs like that too. Then we get hysterical on “Dinner Lady Arms”, a Def Leppard song at heart. Justin’s soaring high chorus was far beyond the Leps, but Phil Collen could have written that riff.
Permission to Land ended its first side with a ballad (“Love is Only a Feeling”) and so the formula was repeated here. “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” is similar but just as good, embellished with strings and piano. The most epic song, however, is “Hazel Eyes”. The side two opener boasts full-on bagpipes and an indescribable high-pitched Celtic chorus! Everything gels. The pompous overindulgence, and the pure Darkness sound, are mixed to chemical perfection. It also features that signature Eddie Graham drum fill. Boom-boom-boom-boom, BAP!
There’s a brief stumble here. “Bald” is an amusing song, rocking slow and hard, but lacking that je ne sais quoi that could have made it unforgettable. Then Justin swerves a little too far into pop with the disco-like “Girlfriend“, complete with gui-board solo and the highest notes known to humankind. A brilliant single it is, but perhaps an example of the Darkness going too far off course on an album that is already overflowing with excess. Then again, perhaps it’s actually the right song for an album like this. Where else would you put it?
As we close in on the end, “English Country Garden” fires on with a speedy piano rock jam. It’s like taking a Queen LP and turning the speed up to 45. Finally “Blind Man” is the closing ballad to takes things to their logical ends. You will hear no discernible rock instruments, just the strings and woodwinds of an orchestra, for almost the whole thing. That was really the end way to end an album this bombastic. Appropriately, Justin’s vocals are similarly taken to the extreme.
You have to admire The Darkness for just going for it. They could have done Permission to Land Part II, just by leaving out the excess. They didn’t. We knew they were going to go balls to the wall when they were briefly working with Mutt Lange. You don’t work with Mutt Lange unless you want every note under the microscope. There are a lot of notes on One Way Ticket, and each one sounds like it was painstakingly created in sterile perfection. And that’s fine. That’s one method of getting there. One Way Ticket was the “experimental” second album, and like any other, it’s both baffling and charismatic in extreme measures.