Friday, 28 November 2008

Top 100 Albums - #13: The Road To Hell (1989)

Chris Rea makes his third and final chart appearance with The Road To Hell, widely considered to be his masterpiece.
After first tasting success with Shamrock Diaries (1985, #91), Rea composed a series of albums which brought him success both critically and commercially. The immediate follow-up, On The Beach (1986), consolidated the chilled-out sound and added a brighter, more continental flavour. Rea's guitar playing was steadily improving, becoming smoother and silkier while retaining something in the way of its blues roots. This new style reared its head on Dancing With Strangers (1987), which produced no real hit singles but continued Rea's run of acclaim. After winding up the tour to support Dancing With Strangers, Rea was quiet through most of 1988, save for the release of a singles compilation, New Light Through Old Windows, and a Christmas single, 'Driving Home For Christmas', which peaked at #53 on the UK chart.

'The Road To Hell (Part 1)' is a complete unknown compared to its brother, but don't think that it's a bad track as a result. For the first 90 seconds or so, your head is filled with the sounds of a long, dreary motorway journey home: the rhythmic screech of the wipers on the windscreen, the pelt of the rain onto the glass and roof, the dark clouds rumbling in the distance, and the radio blaring out more bad news. The piano sat underneath it winds whimsically along, making the situation all the more frustrating. Then, all of a sudden, this mood music is replaced by dark synthesiser chords courtesy of Kevin Leach, and Rea rumbles his opening lines like a jealous God, mourning His lost people in such a manner that it sends shivers down your spine.

After such an atmospheric start, 'The Road To Hell (Part 2)' seems like pure pop. It's a lot more catchy, for certain, and the bluesy riffs tumbling out of Rea's guitar do walk the line between crass and cultured very gingerly. But in all, this is deservedly recognised as one of his finest songs. It may have be written about the M25 (which isn't exactly glamourous), but like all the best songs you can read so much more into it than that. From another angle it's a pathos-ridden, burning commentary on 1980s materialism, or an Everyman-esque religious allegory. It's presented in a language and form that is readily understandable, but which also rewards deeper study. And while it has been hopelessly overplayed since its release, it remains a snappy little charmer to get your grey cells going as much as your feet.

The religious (or at least moral) element of Rea's work is continued in 'You Must Be Evil'. If you weren't convinced of the previous song's credentials, this is more openly savage. It narrows the focus from a general indictment of modern man to a well-aimed strike against the cynical nature of television. Don't think, however, that it's a list of prudish criticisms from a member of The Mary Whitehouse League. Rea is attacking the sensationalist nature of the medium, rather than specific events. Again, it's not the most in-depth stuff at first glance, but like a lot of Rea's songs there is a hidden, bluesy depth to them that can only be discovered after a long car journey with them playing on a loop. Musically, look out for a lovelye bit of bass in the final chorus from Eoghan O'Neill.

'Texas' shifts the focus from drizzle-filled Britain to America - or at least, it seems to. The lyrics are a fond exposition of the Lone Star State from a guy longing to escape there, longing to experience the desolation and simplicity (Warm winds blowing/ Heat and blue sky/ And a road that goes forever). It's a song of dreams and frustrations at the mundane nature of life, underscored by Leach's shimering keyboards and snappy drumming from Martin Ditcham. In the second half, Rea's Fender soars into life just briefly and transports you into that laid-back dream, completely at ease. Before long you are in the Deep South, surrounded by hints of the foot-stomping blues Rea would finally produce on Dancing Down The Stony Road (2002).

'Looking For A Rainbow' is where the album starts to fall apart. It's nearly twice as long as the previous track, at 8:05, which means that the pop hooks and punchy nature of the last three songs will be difficult to sustain. Rea reverts instead to the rain and schmaltzy piano (courtesy of Max Middleton) and slowly allows you to sink into a vat of wallpaper paste. Even when the percussion comes in, it never sounds genuine or engaging enough to stir you from your slumber. In short, it's just too long.

Both the next two track fail to drag this record out of the mid-album dip. 'Your Warm And Tender Love' has such a treacly title that is almost impossible to swallow. It begins somewhere between a Simple Minds ballad and an offcut from Queen's Made In Heaven (1995), neither of which seem immediately diserable. This is cloyed and clichéd through and through, never letting itself be anything more than a humdrum, middle-of-the-road love song, and that's annoying. 'Daytona' tries harder, restoring the themes of both America (the racetrack) and cars (the Ferrari of the same name). The tempo is faster, the production crisper and the piano returns to add the melody. But it's still not brilliant, with flat lyrics and no sense of direction. Even the presence of the car at the end (which actually sounds nothing like a Daytona) can't get your pulse going.

You may be tempted to switch off now, but don't. Because 'That's What They Always Say' is an absolute belter. Perhaps that's the wrong word, because this is still a slow, and quiet song. Nevertheless, it has a hugely catchy chorus and a serious of smooth verses which wash over you and make you smile. More than that, though, you can feel the whole band playing tighter and enjoying themselves as a result. No single instrument is allowed to overstay its welcome, so that even Rea's flirtings on the guitar are perfectly balanced between satisfying your initial expections and leaving you wanting more. And for the first time in a long while, you realise what a great singer Rea is. He's unconventional, he's earthy and he pulls no punches on this brilliant song.

'I Just Wanna Be With You' could easily fall into the same trap as 'Your Warm And Tender Love'. The title doesn't do it any favours, that's for sure, but a shared fate is avoided by a series of very clever touches Rea injects into the mix. The percussion is more amusing, or at least tongue-in-cheek, including the apposite cowbell that arrives early on. The guitar riffs are more subdued, and are complimented very nicely by the Hammond Organ sound emanating from the keyboards. Even the slightly dodgy female vocals can't rock this boat.

'Tell Me There's A Heaven' is the ideal closer for the album, invoking the imagery of the title and keeping the focus on the individual. This could have been a terrible song, either by being sanctimonious and preachy, or by being so sugary that it ended up as a must-sing on weepy karaoke nights. But thanks to Rea, it's neither: it's just a heart-swelling, tear-jerking, laid-back emotional masterpiece. Even with the stock strings and overblown piano, it's very hard not to like this song, or be moved by it. The lyrics fit perfectly around the piano part, so that the two are perfectly interwined. Their content appeals to that wish in most or all of us for a better world to the one we have now, whether it be a literal, Christian heaven or an earthly one we make for ourselves. This is a splendid way to round off, and should be accorded pride of place in Rea's catalogue.

The Road To Hell has been hailed as a "modern masterpiece", and on the whole it thoroughly deserves that title.¹ It may not be the deepest or most meaningful piece of rock on first impression: Rea's reputation as a middle-of-the-road schmaltz mercant is palatable if you don't dig any deeper. If, on the other hand, you look behind the pop-ish veil, you open up an album flowing with ambiguity and playfulness, an album that gives few answers and invites you to explore. It will take a while to go from liking this album as a catchy set of songs to liking it as a political statement, but give it enough time and that change will come. And while the classic 'mid-album dip' is quite noticeably severe, deep down they are not dreadful songs, merely below-par ones. In the final analysis, The Road To Hell is without a shadow of a doubt the finest album Rea has ever made, and if ever likely to make if his recent forages into blues are anything to go buy. Shamrock Diaries and The Blue Café (1998, #50) were passable pop; this is proper album rock.

4.10 out of 5

¹ John Floyd, 'The Road To Hell', Accessed on January 16 2009.

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