Feb 28 2022

Album Review: Def Leppard – Hysteria (#MWE)

Let’s state the obvious first: Hysteria is a monster of an album. We’re talking thundering drums, loud-ass guitars, screeching solos, to-the-rafters vocals from Joe Elliott, in-the-pocket background vocals from everyone else, unforgiving hooks. It’s an hour-plus of Mutt Lange-produced maximalism. Even when the tempo slows (as on hit “Love Bites”), everything is still in the red. The choruses are confrontational, even when you know they’re coming (and you always know when they’re coming). It’s an album of its time. You can vividly see all of the big hair if you close your eyes.

Hysteria sold 20 million copies worldwide, buttressed by hit songs like the deathless stripper anthem “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and the fucking excellent title track. But anyone who bought the record probably wasn’t disappointed with the rest; every song follows the same template, and it all sounds, rather gloriously, like the summer of 1987.

Four years had passed since Def Leppard had broken through to the masses with their smash album Pyromania, and the band almost missed their shot to capitalize on the glam metal takeover that would come to define the decade. The band began work with Jim Steinman before parting ways; apparently the Bat Out Of Hell mastermind was too grandiose and not pop-focused enough for Def Leppard’s objectives.

Tragedy struck the band when drummer Rick Allen lost his arm to a horrific car crash; the ensuing overzealous media coverage inspired the album’s title. This event, of course, delayed recording, but probably the biggest slowdown was Lange’s meticulous attention to detail; he had ambitiously sought to make the hair metal version of Thriller, where every song could conceivably be released as a single. This resulted in a laborious process of stacking and processing background vocal harmonies and painstakingly filtering drum sounds through a Fairlight CMI sampler.

I love the 80s, but the whole hair metal thing has eluded me. There was something about the sameness of the sound, the overused, indistinct template of big gated drums and screeching guitar solos that I found slightly off-putting. As a fan of big hooks, pop production, and pyrotechnics, there are moments and songs I have enjoyed, but as a whole I had dismissed the era as dated, something that you had to be there for to truly enjoy. It was slightly before my time, which means that by the time I was paying attention to what was in fashion, hair metal was very, very uncool – old enough to seem out of touch, and not old enough to have been critically reassessed.

With that background in context, I really enjoyed my cursory listen to this grandiose, expensive-sounding album. Hysteria is a lot of fun, if completely trapped in the moment it was created. Most songs work by themselves as potential radio singles, but taken as a whole it all starts to sound the same. That’s one misstep from Mutt Lange and the band, I think. They completely overdid it – in an effort to make the glam version of Thriller, they forgot an important element to that blockbuster album from Michael Jackson. It works as a collection of great pop songs, sure, but it’s also a fantastic album – a diverse listen from start to finish (and of adequate length). Hysteria has too much going on, and a lot of it is the same thing over and over. No amount of monster hooks is going to fix that issue.

The whole ordeal of recording and producing Hysteria was excessive and expensive and the end result was shiny and glossy and ready for mass consumption. Are those Ronald Reagan samples in “Gods of War?” Is Hysteria the most 1980s album ever? I will not attempt to answer these burning questions. Instead, all I can say is that the entire listen is egregiously slick, regularly brilliant, and occasionally overcooked. But, more than anything, it’s a thrill ride.

Score: 7/10