One of the releases of the year

So here’s how this review was going to start: I was going to say that Mr Big, along with Extreme, were classic examples of bands that copied Van Halen’s technical mastery without grasping any of the visceral energy that made them great. I was going to say that Mr Big tried to counter their show-off-manship with overly commercial acoustic ballads, none of which altered the fact they were, and are, a little soulless.

But I’m not going to say any of that now. Because now I love Mr Big. Now I can’t get enough of their latest record, What If… What changed?

I saw them live.

A few weeks ago in Columbia in Maryland, Billy Sheehan, Eric “Benjamin Button” Martin, Pat Torpey and Paul Gilbert blew away more than a dozen other “hair metal” bands at the M3 Festival. These guys’ musicianship is almost athletic in nature. Their chops are so breath-taking that it seems almost humble of them to apply themselves to conventional, commercial song structures. You thank them for bothering to try to communicate with mortals like ourselves.

See them in the flesh, and it all makes sense. Suddenly, What If … – which this reviewer was prepared to listen to a few times, dismiss in words, and leave behind – is one of the releases of the year.

“Undertow” is a beguiling, stirring, chugging pop metal song reminiscent of the Van Hagar years. “American Beauty”? Orgasmic Big Rock that probably eclipses anything Sheehan did with Diamond David Lee Roth. “Stranger in My Life” represents a perfect balance between lyrical pathos and restrained musical delivery, “No-one to Blame” just builds and builds through the verse before erupting in the chorus.

More? “Still Ain’t Enough for Me” is driven by Sheehan’s bass, a song by uber-musos, for uber-musos but still great for the rest of us. “Once Upon a Time” will dig itself into the musical centre of your brain like a grappling hook and they don’t make soaring vocals and driving rhythms like those in “As Far as I Can See” anymore. “I got a deep suspicion/You’re out there playing games/But I never see the faces/I don’t know the names”.

“I Won’t Get in My Way” is all about positive reinforcement, like the major hard rock releases always used to be: “Viva la strange – take a bite of Eden’s apple,” sings the man who just seems to get younger. “Around the World” sums up what Mr Big are about – dazzling musicianship to start off, then an insidious chorus that would survive even without the contortionist feats on the drums, bass and guitar.

Take what you want out of it – the widdly-widdly or the melodies. They don’t care. “I Get The Feeling” is fun, perfectly delivered and makes it clear these guys are happy to be alive. Give What If… a few spins and you will too.

Even as he has written this review with an album he has lived with a month playing in his ears, your correspondent had been adding percentage points to the rating above. It’s a good lesson about not dismissing music too quickly, nor relying on preconceptions. What If… it was 1991? Then this would be one of the biggest selling albums of all time.

1. Undertow
2. American Beauty
3. Stranger in My Life
4. Nobody Left to Blame
5. Still Ain’t Enough for Me
6. Once Upon a Time
7. As Far as I Can See
8. All the Way Up
9. I Won’t Get in My Way
10. Around the World
11. I Get the Feeling
Bonus: Unforgiven