There are a lot of feelings that color the review process for a record like Whitesnake’s latest, Flesh & Blood (Frontiers). On the one hand, I’m not a huge fan of the group. I appreciate what they do and I certainly don’t wish ill of them. The band, led from the start by former Deep Purple vocalist David Coverdale, made a transition from blues-inflected hard rock in the late ’70s into seismic success in the 1980s.
Hard to say the glory was all Coverdale’s alone. The breakout ’87 album had the track “Here I Go Again,” which today stands as one of those inescapable, era-defining tracks alongside the deathless “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Africa,” and “Take On Me.” I don’t even have to tell you who did those songs. The ’87 album’s hero, unseen as he was let go from the band shortly after its recording, was John Sykes. His guitar sound, specifically, helped make the band what people came to know it to be. This is evident from the previous record, 1984’s Slide It In, which is even better.
I suppose if I’m being completely cynical, what really fueled the success of Whitesnake were the videos featuring actor Tawny Kitaen, in various states of glamour. You remember the songs, but frequently in tandem with her acrobatics atop luxury cars.
And still, I have an emotional investment in the band and most of the bands that emerged from this time because of vanity. As one gets older, their bodies change. The eyes don’t work the way they used to. The rain affects you in ways it never did. And stairs? Oh my God, the stairs…but in your head, you’re still 17. There is a comfort in knowing that the entertainers from those times can still do what they do.
This is the baggage that ultimately makes Whitesnake’s latest such a hard pill to swallow. The band is working very hard here. You cannot fault them, as the individual members – Reb Beach, Joel Hoekstra, Michael Devin, Tommy Aldridge, and Michele Luppi – go for broke, track after track. Coverdale’s lyrics, while never the most insightful or philosophical, are suitably horny and ready for a fight. There is no lack of effort here.
But Coverdale’s voice.
We’ve known for a while that his personal instrument no longer was what it used to be. Other rockers from that period have managed workarounds, have moved on to less taxing styles, dropped the key of their biggest hits to accommodate singing that cannot handle the upper register anymore. You cannot fault everyone on Flesh & Blood for the sweat equity, but it is a hard slog to listen to Coverdale’s singing.
That’s a real shame. Even if this so-called “cock rock” is not your standard brew, it’s a bitter taste to find that the primary element – after all, Coverdale and Whitesnake are inseparable – is struggling this hard. The spirit is more than willing. Flesh & Blood, regardless, is weak.
The bigger picture is, for those who came from this time, the reminder that we are not young anymore. Music, in it’s most basic form, can be pure escapism and transporting. When those illusions are revealed as just that, it is a small but real knock to the ego. Maybe in our heads we can still move mountains, but our aches and pains reveal another truth.