Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, every Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. This week, Adrien Begrand paints a pretty picture for Bruce Dickinson's Balls to Picasso. If you watch any of Iron Maiden's live shows from the Fear of the Dark period, it's more than evident that Bruce Dickinson had had enough. If his performances aren't barely a notch above phoned in, they're downright apathetic, a good example being the horrendous Raising Hell VHS, where you can practically see his mind is in another place during the entire performance. As much as we didn't want to admit it at the time, Dickinson and Maiden needed some time apart. The unrelenting pace of the previous dozen years—which yielded nine albums, hundreds and hundreds of shows, and saw them become one of the most popular metal acts in the world—would break the toughest individual. So, when the split happened in 1993, it hardly came as a surprise.
With the grunge fad practically wiping metal music off the face of the mainstream map, it threw so many popular '80s artists for a loop that, by the mid-1990s, band after band was going through a severe identity crisis. They'd try to make their music "edgier" by down-tuning and simplifying the riffs, ditching hooks in favor of moodier, "darker" compositions, and simply losing all the fun of '80s metal in an effort to "get serious." With Maiden and Dickinson, however, while both sides altered their sounds, it never felt like pandering. That was certainly the case with Dickinson's first solo record after leaving the band. Sure, Balls to Picasso sounds a lot more dated and dour compared to 1989's vibrant and fun Tattooed Millionaire, but rather than coming off as an old dinosaur desperately trying to stay cutting-edge, he was simply up for trying something new after performing "Run to the Hills" two billion times. And that positive energy that he brings to the record is the one big reason why it works.
Viewed strictly from a musical standpoint, the songwriting and arrangements on Balls to Picasso, handled by Dickinson collaborator Roy Z and his band Tribe of Gypsies, are as bland as the cover art. However, nearly every track is saved from mind-numbing mediocrity by the sheer verve of Dickinson's vocal performances. You can tell he's elated to be unshackled; sure, the album's a total hodgepodge of styles, but Bruce's exuberance is irresistible.
So, while many metal acts adopted post-grunge sounds in the mid-'90s to awkward effect, a similarly arranged song like "Cyclops" actually works, thanks solely to Bruce's vocal delivery. A little metal bombast goes a long way (just ask circa-1989 Soundgarden), and his singing definitely transforms what would have been a boring, mid-paced song into an interesting one. "Gods of War" is a real standout, featuring a powerhouse performance by Bruce as his backing band flirts slightly with the odd Maiden-ism here and there, but focuses primarily on a bluesier feel. "1000 Points of Light" is a weird dose of Living Colour-derived funk, "Laughing in the Hiding Bush" is built around a rote sleaze groove, and "Change of Heart" comes perilously close to the smarminess of '90s Santana, but Dickinson is so convincing throughout all those songs, no matter what style he’s tackling.
The tough thing about defending indefensible albums is trying to find merit in every single track. With Balls to Picasso, that’s impossible, sadly. If there's one song that doesn't work at all, it's the asinine "Shoot All the Clowns". The lyrics rank as some of Bruce's worst: "I've been down / At the crazy house / I've been playing / With the cat and the mouse / I've been down / I've been down / I've seen the crazy people / Running around / Shoot all the clowns / Shoot 'em down / Shoot 'em down / Shoot 'em down." Disturbingly, that’s not the worst part, as the shameless, Red Hot Chili Peppers-derived bridge is unbearable, not to mention inexcusable. U.K. singles buyers, often not the sharpest knives in the drawer, inexplicably propelled the song to number 36 on the singles chart, arguably the worst British pop abomination since "Mr. Blobby."
"Sacred Cowboys" is reminiscent of the pop-infused hard rock of Tattooed Millionaire, but the real keeper is the gorgeous “Tears of the Dragon.” The song totally sticks out, as if it was tacked on at the end to entice Maiden's fan base. Nitpicking aside, though, it's a fantastic closing epic that easily stands alongside anything Iron Maiden have ever done. I'm probably not the only person who wishes Maiden would perform their own version of the song live. Bruce had to sing Blaze material in the 2000s; it’s only fair that Steve Harris should do a Bruce song!
Either way, as I mentioned in my defense of The X Factor a couple months back, there’s no denying Bruce and Maiden needed each other, and the metal world indeed has been a better place ever since they mended fences in 1999, but Balls to Picasso remains an odd, fascinating little curiosity, a moment in time where Bruce Dickinson thoroughly enjoyed the rejuvenation of being in complete creative control for the first time in years.
1. Cyclops 2. Hell No 3. Gods of War 4. 1000 Points of Light 5. Laughing in the Hiding Bush 6. Change of Heart 7. Shoot All the Clowns 8. Fire 9. Sacred Cowboys 10. Tears of the Dragon