The 2000s have been a mixed bag for Def Leppard. They may still be a draw on the concert circuit, but their albums have been both highs and lows. In 2002 they released X, as in the Roman numeral “ten,” as to mark their tenth studio album (even though it’s actually their eighth, as 1993’s Retro Active is a collection of b-sides and outtakes, and 1995’s Vault is a greatest hits package). X sounded like a band trying oh so hard to sound “modern,” and it simply didn’t work (it’s easily their worst album). One might have assumed the second hits package that followed marked the end of the band, but 2006 saw Lep’s return with Yeah!, a collection of covers that was, quite simply, one of their best. A record of covers isn’t supposed to sound as good as Yeah! – Lep sounded youthful and rejuvenated.
So that brings us to 2008’s Songs from the Sparkle Lounge, the band’s actual tenth studio album. Sparkle Lounge sees the band heading back toward the direction of their 80s wall-of-sound material like Pyromania and Hysteria, but actually ends up sounding more akin to 1999’s Euphoria. The band tries to recapture their glory days, and there are some tracks that come very close. The problem with Sparkle Lounge is that it lacks character and definition. Many of the songs sound very generic – familiar, yet forgettable. That’s not to say there isn’t anything of note here. “Go” is a terrific opener; “Bad Actress” and “Come Undone” have a sense of urgency. However, there’s too much material that doesn’t resonate after the album has finished. “C’mon C’mon,” and “Only the Good Die Young” (sadly not a Billy Joel cover) are entertaining, but feel very by-the-numbers. And then tracks like “Love” and “Gotta Let it Go” are simply forgettable. Finally, there’s the lead single and collaboration with Tim McGraw, “Nine Lives,” which is the most forced and calculated song the band has ever produced, and that’s saying something.
Despite its shortcomings, the album sounds very good, and could have had success with a stronger set of songs. While not the failure that X was, Sparkle Lounge shows the band treading water. It’s almost as if Lep are unsure of where to take the band, resulting in an album not as classicist as Euphoria, or as “modern” as X, but somewhere in between. There’s still one more solid album left in Def Leppard, and you can hear it in a track like “Go,” but Songs from the Sparkle Lounge isn’t it.