AC/DC has tried a few different things and taken a few different turns to try and grow up (or age up? Or act their age?) in the last thirty-eight years with limited success at most. Every time the band has tried to move forward from the callous one-liners and double entendres which first helped to make them famous (Flick Of The Switch was the first occasion where they stepped out on their sense of humor), AC/DC has seemed to trip over their own feet because the bravado in their best music has been such a large part of what made it great and abandoning that was a worrisome prospect. For that reason, they have always gone back to what they know best, after faltering. Working with Marvel Studios on the soundtracks for the Iron Man movies definitely helped AC/DC get a little more self-confidence about them (whoever could have guessed that would be a problem?) – so now with a far stronger set of legs beneath them (in spite of the unfortunate passing if guitarist Malcolm Young – to whom this album is dedicated), AC/DC has answered the demand to either “grow up or shut up” with PWR/UP – their best album in thirty years.
As good as the album does prove to get though, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take a couple of minutes (well, about three and a half, the same amount of time it takes to play through the A-side opener, “Realize”) to burn the dust off the circuits. So “Realize” becomes something of a sacrifice, as a result; the guitars seem to trip over themselves and other elements in Brendan O’Brien’s mix a little, and the play gets a little muddy as a result – but it still manages to make its way through, due to the band’s surprisingly earnest desire to make it work.
The going gets a whole lot better after “Realize” closes and “Rejection” kicks off to follow up. There, Brian Johnson asserts a far stronger stance as his voice projects better, and Angus and Stevie Young lock into a far more solid rhythmic interplay. That improvement alone would be enough to redeem the cut as at least an improvement over “Realize,” but the song develops even further too; the bravado which used to characterize AC/DC lyrics has been tempered, and the veiled menace that fans assumed “Night Prowler” (from all the way back on Highway To Hell) is finally better realized as lines like, “If you reject me/ I’ll take what I want/ Disrespect me/ And you get burned” illustrate.
Just as the album’s running looks like it might get pretty dark with “Rejection”’s help though, AC/DC lightens up a whole lot with the raucous single “Shot In The Dark” and then actually tries its hand at an “Oh what a wild ride it has been” reflection on the great bad old days (which sounds like it could have been co-written by Geddy Lee – it’s that reflective) before shooting for shooting for a rock-hard blues number with “Kick You When You’re Down” and then closing the side with a great groove which ducks all the double entendres in view and literally plays against type (and making sure listeners know they’re doing it) with “Witch’s Spell” to close the side.
As one listens to “Witch’s Spell,” it’s actually possible to find a poetic bent and indulgence in artifice in Brian Johnson’s lyric sheet which has gone perfectly unnoticed in all of AC/DC’s work with the singer to this point. It might be difficult to believe, but it’s true; beneath Angus Young’s syncopated guitar figure (which sounds more than a little like the guitar part from “It’s A Long Way To The Top,” to be honest), Johnson sneaks in lyrics of a dynamically poetic sort which call to mind the rock dynamos of the Seventies (you know who the usual suspects are, reader). Check out lines like “Ride a moonbeam/ Sail the starlight/ My blaze in the midnight sky/ See the witch’s flight” – it’s completely unlike anything that any fan has ever expected of AC/DC.
…And then, of course, the band fixes the confusion they may have generated with “Witch’s Spell” as soon as listeners flip the record over and sink a needle into “Demon Fire” – the song which opens the B-side. There, AC/DC play with all the power that orthodoxy allows and will have listeners won without question as Johnson’s “born under a bad sign” vibes and what must be an ageless rasp unload lines like, “He loves to drive ’em crazy with his evil lips/ Great guns are blazing, what a deadly trip/ Yeah, born of no family, born of no creed/ yeah, raised by a jackal, raised a bad seed” and charm listeners’ hearts, with no effort at all. After that, Johnson could do anything – but ups his own ante by hitting a few more lyrical hooks (“Like a devil on a deadline” had me ready to sell my soul more than anything Ozzy has ever said on his own or with Sabbath) and then slipping out the back door with the perfectly sublime “Wild Reputation” (which doesn’t swing for the fences but still nails an easy triple) before lining up two cuts which could easily appear on a forthcoming Marvel movie soundtrack (“No Man’s Land” and “Systems Down” and then squaring up to either close out the album or burn the house down with the final two cuts in the runtime.
While it does not have ideal placement on the album (it doesn’t begin it or end it, nor does it open any side – it is the definition of an album track), one listen proves that “Money Shot” is the underrated, dark horse cut of PWR/UP. Here, with well-honed skill, Angus Young sets up a call-and-response pair of guitar tracks while Brian Johnson snarls out a vocal that is the definition of the kind of surly spectacle that only AC/DC can conjure when they’re firing on all cylinders. Here, it could be contended that the song is timely (listen to the lyrics – anytime anybody mentions an “injection” these days, people are going to default to “vaccine”), but the fact is that such an image takes a back seat to the realization that “Money Shot” is a perfect AC/DC rock song; it is the sort that the band has been making fir decades, but still wins fans. Listeners will know it the first time they hear it and, while there is still one more cut in the side’s running, (and “Code Red” is a solid one too), “Money Shot” is a peak moment buried deep in the running of PWR/UP for true fans who know a record isn’t over until the needle lifts to find.
…And, after the needle does lift, listeners will find themselves easing back in their recliners in silent satisfaction. Even on first pass, they’ll know that PWR/UP is the album they’ve been waiting for from AC/DC; it has the power and the chops, but does not rely on the same ol’ cliches which have usually won fans over. They’ll stand up and cheer for this album for the only reason that matters: it is just that good. [Bill Adams]
PWR/UP is out now on vinyl, CD and all digital platforms. Buy it here on Amazon.