REVIEW: NIKKI SIXX’S HEROIN DIARIES IS A DELICIOUS TASTE OF EXCESS
It’s no secret that Nikki Sixx was always the songwriting brains behind the Motley Crue brawn. But it’s not the party anthems that the Crue bassist is known for that make his new album The Heroin Diaries — the soundtrack companion to the soon-to-be-released autobiographical book of the same name — one of the best releases so far in 2007. Nay, The Heroin Diaries is a full on concept record. Crue fans looking for shout along, fist-in-the-air anthems will throw this album back up on eBay, but forward thinking intellectual-minded music fans will revel in the complexity and cohesiveness of this piece.
Where it would have been easy to release a mediocre CD to accompany the book as a quick cash-grab, Sixx has gone above and beyond and created one of the best concept records written in the past several years. The album is actually released under the band name Sixx A.M.; producer/writer extraordinaire James Michael, with whom Nikki has worked in the past, lends his dynamic voice to the album in addition to his work behind the boards, and guitarist DJ Ashba (ex-Beautiful Creatures) is the perfect choice for guitar. The Heroin Diaries comes off as a full-on conceptual piece, one that would certainly stand on its own without the accompanying literature. The songs are both intricately arranged and hooky, a tough balance to strike; the production is grandiose but not overambitious; and the story is, of course, riveting. Even if we already know the beginning, middle, and end from countless VH1 Behind the Music reruns, Sixx and Michael have crafted the story and the words and intertwined them with the ebb and flow of the music, and the resulting record serves as a modern reminder of what the word “album” actually means.
The songwriting team of Sixx, Michael and Ashba is a slam dunk both on paper and in practice. Sixx and Michael are no strangers to each other, having worked together on several other collaborations including Saliva’s radio ballad “Rest in Pieces.” Both Michael and Ashba are credited generously in the liner notes as co-writers, suggesting Sixx A.M. is in fact a working, collaborative effort rather than just a vehicle through which Nikki Sixx can express his ideas. These are all men who know the definition of a song; they fully understand what makes a good one, and nearly every effort here is stellar. What’s surprising, though, is how well everything comes together to form a cohesive album. I can only assume James Michael had a lot to do with this, bringing the pieces together and creating a single work of art, much like Bob Ezrin did with Roger Waters’ good but slightly disjointed demos for Pink Floyd’s magnum opus The Wall (a work Michael may or may not have openly referenced with the helicopter sound effect on “Heart Failure” and phone-off-the-hook drone of “Courtesy Call”).
The structure of The Heroin Diaries is true to concept record form. The record is like a Broadway show that plays out before the listeners ears. There is an intro — “X-Mas in Hell” — a chilling spoken-word piece of heroin-addled desperation; a middle — “Intermission” — a fully orchestrated manic realization in which the string section and piano convey the realization of addicted helplessness; and an ending — “Girl With Golden Eyes” — the music and spoken word vividly capturing Sixx’s day by day withdrawal and addiction recovery, building to an epic crescendo. The obligatory final relapse of “Courtesy Call,” brilliantly summed up by the inevitable line “This is just a courtesy call” leads to the triumphant 12-steps style apology “Permission” and the time-to-start-life-fresh look forward, “Life After Death.”
Fittingly, each and every song plays a role in the story, and the music always seems to echo the sentiment. “Heart Failure” is a brooding, heavy, guitar-driven track chronicaling Nikki at his lowest of lows, while “Life is Beautiful” is an upbeat, optimistic, riff-based rocker looking back at life through the eyes of someone who has learned a thing or two from their journeys. The drugged out, Robert Smith-esque “Pray For Me” perfectly captures the “strung out but don’t give a shit” attitude of a younger Sixx, while the melancholy, acoustic guitar-driven tale of relapse “Accidents Can Happen” recalls failed efforts of sobriety.
As good as Sixx’s songwriting is throughout both this album and the entire body of Motley Crue material, I can’t help but feel like James Michael comes off as the true all-star on The Heroin Diaries. The fact that Michael lends his rich, dynamic voice to this album is a fabulous and welcome bonus, as this album could have easily suffered from vocal mediocrity, but Michael’s production is where he shines brightest. The production is deep and lush throughout, with layers upon layers of guitar parts only serving to accentuate the intended attitude rather than clutter things up. Full-on string orchestrations and piano balladeering weave their way in and out of the album in good taste, as does the occasional electronic sample, background keyboard texture and background vocal. The album is, without a doubt, Sixx’s work first and foremost, but Michael has done precisely what good producers do; taken good ideas and made them great via additional writing, arrangement tweaks, and a keen ear for appropriate production. I’m unclear on how much of a role DJ Ashba played in this capacity, but he certainly deserves at least a pay on the back as well in his first significant release since leaving the Beautiful Creatures almost 5 years ago.
It is incredibly reassuring that The Heroin Diaries is so good. All of the aforementioned perks of this album make it a great listen through and through, and the conceptual nature is testament to the fact that despite the increasingly single-oriented music market, concept records can still be relevant. Lastly, it’s great to know that at least one member of Motley Crue is doing something worthwhile and pushing the envelope. One member is busy whoring himself out to reality TV and booze cruises and constantly forgets the words to his own songs. Another puts out flavor-of-the-moment crap music of whatever happens to be popular that day, while another is too crippled to do much at all (bless his soul). Meanwhile Nikki Sixx, the survivor, the warrior, is pushing along and making truly meaningful, intricate music that is a big step forward and truly shows a sense of artistic development. I genuinely hope that this album gets the recognition it deserves beyond being the companion to a book that will no doubt be of the shock and awe variety (See: The Dirt). Congratulations to Nikki Sixx for a fine, fine work of music, that while it might not change the face of the current music scene, it certainly represents a personal accomplishment and step in the right direction
(four and a half out of five horns)
The Heroin Diares book will be released September 18th.