The cover art on Iggy Pop’s “Beat Em Up” says it all. A bikini-clad cartooned woman stands spread-eagle against a sunny yellow background, and the words “Iggy Pop” and the album title are scrawled across her left breast and thigh. But these words are upstaged by an interesting (to say the least) interpretation of the female anatomy, cleverly concealed with a red heart sticker that demands, “Peel Off Package.” Finally, let’s not forget the good old “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” warning.
In other words, Iggy Pop still rocks. The Godfather of Punk’s latest offering shows that while he may be pushing 55, Iggy can be as in-your-face as he was with the band that made him famous, the Stooges. After the ponderous introspection of his last album Avenue B, Iggy seems to be looking for a return to the good old days. But times have changed. While Iggy retains the ability and the energy to produce thrashing, noisy tracks infected with an eerie sexuality, he makes many misplaced concessions to contemporary tastes for neo-metal and Creed-style hard rock.
“Beat Em Up” is a marginal success only because Iggy has always been a rebel, and he remembers his old tricks. What was once rebellion, however, is now convention. Iggy’s blend of hard rock and Lou Reed-inspired social commentary has somehow disintegrated into the angry guy rock phenomenon that enshrines a nonspecific anger with the world. Contemporary bands have abandoned the rawness of early punk for overproduced punk-pop, and similarly, Iggy has given up his signature industrial noise for more harmonic horns. “Beat Em Up” attempts to confront and challenge these trends but instead succumbs to them in an effort to be mainstream.
A large part of the blame for the anti-garage sound lies with Iggy’s band. Guitar riffs on “L.O.S.T” and “Weasels” sound like they were stolen when Creed wasn’t looking. Screaming commands like “Drink New Blood” and “Go For the Throat” do have the speed and aggression of punk, but lack the spontaneity. Despite lyrics that seem like impromptu rambling (see “V.I.P.” and the hidden track that follows), the overall sound is too polished to be an honest throwback to Iggy’s early work. Iggy apparently didn’t take enough cues from his inspiration Jim Morrison when penning “V.I.P.,” which entirely lacks the frightening immediacy and daring of the Doors’ hit “The End.”
Nonetheless, “Beat Em Up” has a lot of what originally made Iggy the paragon of all things alternative, and that is Iggy himself. Years and years of drug abuse, masochism, and other rock-star perks haven’t changed Iggy’s haunting voice and his sexual presence. He still spends much time condemning society and offering commentary. Much of the commentary seems empty or contradictory, however. On “Mask,” Iggy rants about the ills of modern society and then makes a mockery of himself by asking, “Where is the love?”
Iggy takes his commentary a step further when he condemns the modern music world itself, shouting, “weasels control rock and roll,” and “it’s all s—.” Iggy tries to take on the rock industry as he and other punk founders did in the 1970s, when rock was all excess and ego. Unlike the social commentary, which seems trite and generic, Iggy’s indictment of the rock genre has more credibility, if only because of Iggy’s status in the rock and roll world. Iggy further expresses a sense of bewilderment, proclaiming that he is “all f—–d up,” and demanding to know “where am I?”
Indeed, Iggy seems to be “L-O-S-T lost” among modern artists. The latest album finds him pandering to modern tastes with neo-metal guitars and a slowed-down grungelike feel. But throughout the album, Iggy’s inspirations are palpable, and it is easy to understand why so many bands — from grunge to new wave — cite Iggy and the Stooges as a key influence.
Iggy’s mastery of throaty growls makes Fred Durst sound like Bryan Adams, and his plaintive baritone is unique in today’s tone-deaf rock landscape. His eerie vocals on “Football” and “Talking Snake” recall his and David Bowie’s “China Girl” days. The plaintive pessimism shows not only where bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam found their voices, but also how age and experience have deepened Iggy’s emotions — even if they are barely audible beneath noisy musical convention. Regardless of the actual instrumentals, there is something terribly haunting about Iggy’s deep vibrato assuring us that “Death is certain for sure.”
“Beat Em Up” paradoxically demonstrates how far Iggy has come, and just how entrenched he remains in rock convention. Iggy’s vocals still pulsate with sexuality, but his band nearly drowns them in contemporary musical styling. Iggy expresses confusion and pessimism in his lyrics, along with a general distaste for society, and yet he caters to modern tastes. Iggy fans may be upset by these concessions, but new listeners may take refuge in a record that promises more than the current crop of aimlessly angry albums — and that is Iggy himself, still rebelling and still rocking after all these years.