Ever seen Woody Allen’s Zelig? It’s a pseudo-documentary about a guy who immediately assumes the traits of whomever he’s with at the moment; put him in a room full of Chinese people and he’ll turn into a Chinese man, move him to a room full of Hasidim and he’ll suddenly appear to be Hasidic, and so on and so forth. It’s a(n obvious but still pretty funny) metaphor for a guy with no personality of his own.
Now, consider Slash. Guns N’ Roses folklore tells us that Slash is not the best judge of his own material, and often wanted to scrap some of Guns’ best songs; and, unfortunately, evidence suggests that this folklore is fact, and that Slash is a pretty ho-hum songwriter. Axl Rose has his legitimate insanity and over-sized, not entirely comprehensible artistic vision, but all Slash really seems to have is a desire to be like his heroes in Aerosmith and AC/DC, which is to say, a legacy act and purveyor of catchy but fairly middle-of-the-road rock. Consequently, a lot of the pressure on Slash-penned songs in the post-GN’R era is not just on the guitar playing of the Artist Formerly Known as Saul Hudson, but on the performances of whatever singer he’s working with at any given moment. Slash songs can be like underwritten roles in movies that way; you need the best character actors available to give them some personality, or they risk becoming boring.
Slash has personality (or at least persona) to burn, and it’s no shock that on Slash, his first solo record, he keeps up his up his end of the bargain in the guitar solo department. Despite the fact that he was never a revolutionary musician, Slash was always a very distinctive musician; a lot of people play the way he does, but no one sounds quite like him. But it is kind of a shock that on this, the album which is supposed to be a distinct and unique artistic statement outside the confines of his collaborations with various bands, Slash has very much allowed himself, like Zelig, to blend in with whomever was in the room at the moment.
Each song on Slash’s Slash features a different vocalist (the album is either his Probot or his Supernatural, depending on your point of view), but it often feels like Slash wrote the song with the singer in mind, instead of finding the best singer for the song. In other words: a Slash-penned tune that happened to be just perfect for M. Shadows might be awesome, but an Avenged Sevenfold song that just happens to have guitars by Slash is really just an Avenged Sevenfold song with better guitar solos. In the case of “Crucify the Dead,” Slash’s collaboration with Ozzy Osbourne, the song was even co-written with Ozzy’s current songwriting partner/producer, Kevin Churko. Which explains why it sounds more like Slash being the best thing about a mediocre Black Rain track than it does Ozzy singing on an awesome Slash track. Why isn’t Slash elevating the material instead of just hovering above it?
But hovering-not-elevating he is, and so the songs you’d think would be good pretty much are, and the songs you’d think would be weak pretty much are. It’s hard to look past Adam Levine’s eunuch vocals and lyrics designed to wet the panties of female college freshmen on “Gotten,” but “Dr. Alibi,” with Lemmy, will make you wanna trash your hotel room; “Ghost,” with Ian Astbury and Izzy Stradlin, is a fun but dunderheaded hard rock ditty, but “Promise,” with Chris Cornell, is disappointing “inspirational” pop with vocals that sound a lot like that awesome dude from Soundgarden.
And so, like Metallica’s Death Magnetic, Slash does or does not work on a moment to moment basis. But by my count, more than half the songs actually end up being okay, and that’s not even considering the fact that a stupid Fergie song with guitars by Slash is still better than a regular stupid Fergie song.
This qualifies as a meager victory: “Slash doesn’t blow! Let’s crack open a bottle of Black Death vodka and celebrate!” But is this really all Slash had to say to the world? Never mind recreating the days of Appetite for Destruction, because that’s never going to be in the cards, but what happened to the Slash who wrote or co-wrote “Coma,” “Civil War” and “Estranged?” Slash should never try to update his sound because when he does he comes across as absolutely ridiculous (see: his Fergie/Cypress Hill-assisted cover of “Paradise City,” the rap intro to the Slash’s Snakepit song “Mean Bone,” etc.). But back in the day it seemed like he was capable of constantly pushing himself harder as a musician and an artist; he remained relevant simply by virtue of being good. Slash is a small victory, but I want more than a small victory for Slash; I want a major win.
(three out of five horns)