Rock & roll is supposed to be a playground for bad boys. But if you believe his arresting new album, consummate bad boy Billy Idol feels lost and loveless. Idol sounds weary, even when he’s raggedly ”screaming at the moon.” This isn’t the bad-boy pose speaking. It’s the wailing, paper-thin voice behind the pose.
Idol is weary, he makes you think, because he’s done too many drugs (”Trouble With the Sweet Stuff”), because he lied when his woman needed him (”Prodigal Blues”), and because he lost his love and had to spend Christmas alone (”Mark of Caine”). It gets worse. He can be lonely enough, he sings in ”Trouble With the Sweet Stuff,” to make the ”tracks in my mind” seem more deeply gouged than ”the tracks on my arms.”
You hear him trying to deny the loneliness, riding his life, as he sings in ”Prodigal Blues,” as if it were a frantic runaway train. He howls down the freeways in a cover of the Doors’ ”L.A. Woman.” In ”Cradle of Love” he shakes the devil when the devil misbehaves, burning all the time like a ball of fire.
The album — Idol’s first in four years — doesn’t lack bad-boy excess or bad-boy drive. The grinding hard-rock guitar is there; so is the pounding beat. But the music also can be delicate. ”Prodigal Blues” starts with a rhythm built around a repeated synthesizer note that prods like an insistent memory. Then, fresh from howling at the night, Idol hears the sound of his voice come back; barely audible at first, women’s voices echo ”back-back-back-back-back… .” It’s a lovely effect, familiar from music as far away as 17th-century opera but still fresh.
Maybe the album is called Charmed Life because Idol survived it all, and longs for something better. Not all the songs are spectacular; the last five sound comparatively routine. But the first six — and who expected this from Billy Idol? — may well touch your heart.