To make a successful comeback album is to walk the narrowest of tightropes: artists have to retain their central appeal without rehashing their glory days, sound current without pandering and fundamentally prove their relevance to a world that’s moved on just fine without them.
That ex-Only Ones frontman Peter Perrett is making his big comeback play at 65 is surprising. That he’s now defiantly sober is even more surprising. That the record is this good is absolutely shocking.
Emerging in 1978 from the clubs of snarling punk-era London, The Only Ones shared their peers’ tendency to burn brightly and then fizzle out. They released three records in three years and split in 1982, barely six years after first meeting. Singer/songwriter Peter Perrett, a sort of proto-Pete Doherty, disappeared into a waterfall of drugs, resurfacing every decade or so to make another go at a life in music. Perrett’s returned once again, right on schedule, this time with his first proper solo record, How The West Was Won.
Even in their heyday, no one quite knew how to describe The Only Ones. “Punk” came closest, thanks to their ferocious, stripped-down attack and Perrett’s sneering vocals. Lyrically, though, they had much more in common with the sentimentality of Nat “King” Cole than the fury of Johnny Rotten. Long before punk went emo, while his peers mocked and subverted expectations, Perrett memorably crooned “I think I’m on another world with you.”
On How The West Was Won, Perrett avoids comeback-album syndrome in part by channeling that same romantic candor. “An Epic Story” explicitly celebrates his 48-year relationship with Xena Kakoulli, acknowledging its turbulence without diminishing any of its glamour. “If I could live my whole life again, I’d choose you every time,” he admits proudly. Later, in “C Voyeurger,” he elaborates: “I can’t live without the girl I love.”
By and large, Perrett knows the line between “sentimental” and “cloying,” and inoculates against mawkishness with an injection of wry humor or a sharp metaphor. The narrator of “Troika,” for example, finds his jealousy turning to confused deference when his girlfriend finds herself a girlfriend, then suggests the three of them form “one big happy” polyamorous family.
Occasionally, Perrett slips up: the title track takes a dated, all-too-easy jab at Kim Kardashian (gilded with a healthy dose of sexism, to boot). “Take Me Home,” the album closer, suffers from exactly the sort of insipid histrionics that the rest of the album wisely avoids. Further, Perrett’s singing is something of an acquired taste; part Lou Reed murmur, part Mike Ness snarl, his voice doesn’t carry tunes so much as nod in their general direction.
Still, most of How The West Was Won shows off Perrett’s sill at appropriating the cadence of early rock ‘n’ roll to convey both sincerity and rebellion. Bright, clean guitars (courtesy of Perrett’s son Jamie; Peter Jr. handles bass) shimmer over shuffle beats and dry cymbals, evoking everything from “Stray Cat Strut” to “L’il Red Riding Hood” by Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs. The creeping, compelling “Living In My Head” experiments with smoky psychedelia and, over the course of six minutes, succeeds wildly.
Perhaps Perrett’s best analogue is Paul Westerberg, another literate, introspective singer/songwriter with a cult punk history and peculiar voice. Like the ex-’Mats front man, Perrett’s at his best when he’s vulnerable, willing to share the concerns of his heart and mind with a self-aware wink and laugh. With How The West Was Won, Perrett proves that he’s got plenty of rock and roll left to make, a lot of courage left to make it.