STYX – Cornerstone (Originally 1979 A&M, 2020 Universal red vinyl reissue – limited to 1000 copies)
With Cornerstone, Styx were on their fourth album in their most successful incarnation: Dennis DeYoung, James Young, Tommy Shaw, and Chuck & John Panozzo. Shaw was the newest member and a fierce creative force in songwriting, on guitar, and with his own lead vocals. Styx had a string of hits with this lineup including Crystal Ball, The Grand Illusion, and Pieces of Eight. Cornerstone would be their biggest yet. Though imperfect, it’s loaded with memorable songs and dynamite performances from the poppy-pretentious-prog-rock quintet.
What a terrific song “Lights” still is, with that big fat keyboard lick and Tommy Shaw’s delicate lead vocal. You can hear why the punk rockers sought to eradicate the likes of Styx and their contemporaries. But Cornerstone went to #2 in the album charts, and “Lights” was one of the singles released in Europe. It’s a song about performing on stage, something that most of us will never be able to relate to. But there’s something in its sincerity that is just charming. “Give me the lights, precious lights, give me lights. Give me my hope, give me my energy.”
Another single follows called “Why Me” (which wasn’t intended to be a single, but we’ll get into that). A head-bopping light rock delight. One of those tracks where you say, “Yeah, decent song.” You might forget about it later; you might forget which album it’s on. But it’s cool, especially when a blistering saxophone solo hits the speakers.
The big hit is in the third slot: legendary power ballad “Babe”, Styx’s only #1. Its strength is its pure corniness. Surely, it must have been corny in 1979 too. Yet a word comes back to me – “sincerity”. Dennis DeYoung sounds completely sincere singing, “Babe, I love you,” like he means it. Indeed as I research the album, “Babe” was written for Dennis’ wife. You can hear it. And if I was writing a song for my wife, you’d find it corny too.
A natural follow up to this Dennis-fest is a solid Tommy Shaw rocker called “Never Say Never”. One of those album tracks that couldn’t stand on its own as a single, but has a perfect slot on side one after the big ballad. That is an important slot for any rock band’s side one. You have to get the blood pumping and the circulation back into the extremities with something that has some pep. Because before you know it, the side will be done.
And side one closes on an epic: Tommy’s mandolin-inflected “Boat on a River”. Shaw on mandolin, guitar and autoharp. Dennis on accordion, Chuck Panozzo on double bass with a bow. Although fully acoustic with no electric, “epic” is the best word to describe it. Perhaps it is a precursor to the the current popular “sea shanty” trend. Well, Styx did one in 1979.
Side two kicks off with a blast: “Borrowed Time”. It’s amusing to hear Dennis start the song by saying, “Don’t look now, here comes the 80s!” But this fun romp will be almost completely forgotten when you are suffocated by “First Time”, one of the most syrupy ballads ever foisted upon us. Too syrupy, though the string section is a nice touch. And it would have been the second single, had Tommy Shaw not objected. “Babe” was a smash, and so “First Time” was selected to follow it. Tommy expressed concern at two ballads in a row for the first two singles, and threatened to quit the band over it. Things got so nasty that Dennis DeYoung was briefly fired and then re-hired over the issue. And thus “Why Me” was chosen as second single instead. Probably for the best…though you never know.
What do we need now? A James Young rocker! “Eddie” is his sole writing and singing credit on Cornerstone. And it rocks hard, James pushing the upper register of his voice. You wanna talk deep cuts, well “Eddie” is one of the best. Interestingly it’s also one of those songs where the verses are slightly better than the choruses.
The closing slot on Cornerstone is left to Tommy Shaw’s “Love in the Midnight”, an interesting choice, echoing the side one closer when it opens acoustically. It is the most progressive of the songs, featuring an absolutely bonkers Dennis keyboard solo and suitably gothic “ahh-ahh-ahh” backing vocals within a section with odd timing. Things get heavy and punchy. Definitely going out with a bang and not a whimper on this one.
This transparent vinyl reissue looks and sounds nice. It’s a gatefold sleeve with lyrics, pictures, and moustaches. Not as cheap as buying a vintage vinyl or CD…just a lot nicer to look at.