Plenty of musicians have successfully reinvented themselves – arguably, all great artists have to do it in order to sustain long careers and remain relevant. Radiohead went from Nirvana wannabes to fearless experimentalists. The Beastie Boys stopped doing hardcore punk and became world-famous rappers. U2 changed up their sound in the 1990s, successfully going from fading force to culturally relevant powerhouse while perfecting a template that many others continue to follow. Heck, Madonna has made it into an art form to the point where successful reinvention has become part of her overall brand.
But what about artists that fight reinvention, either because they’re determined to stick to their guns and continue doing what they had always done (and been quite successful at) or because they aren’t ready to become the thing that they know they will have to?
Bryan Adams, I’m looking in your direction.
In retrospect, the fact that Bryan Adams not only survived the end of the 80s but actually experienced some of his greatest success in the 90s is quite extraordinary. For someone who relied on his boy-next-door image, roguish charm and sweet sentimentality to become popular, it seemed the cynical 90s would chew him up like it did several of his contemporaries like Richard Marx, Eric Carmen or Kenny Loggins.
But then “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” hit the charts and changed everything. For those that lived through it and know just how inescapable and ubiquitous that song was (we even performed it in middle school band), it seems odd to think the Adams/Mutt Lange/Michael Kamen-penned tune was destined to be anything other than a blockbuster. But there it was, buried in the latter portion of the end credits for the second-best Robin Hood movie of the 90s – long before Marvel movies made it commonplace for viewers to stay in their seats until the lights came on in the theater.
However, like many great songs, its brilliance was too hard to ignore, and “Everything I Do” became a massive hit – the kind that would go to #1 in over a dozen countries, set a record for most consecutive weeks at the top of the British singles charts, and is #21 on Billboard’s all time singles chart. The song had so much heat that it, more or less, singlehandedly buoyed Adams’s mediocre, repetitive and overly-long 1991 album (Waking Up the Neighbours) and ensured he would not become an 80s relic.
The success of the song also confirmed Adams’s best path forward: adult contemporary balladeer and movie soundtrack hired gun. Essentially, he would be the 90s version of Kenny Loggins – only for romantic comedies. When Adams’s next three hits were all ballads: the plaintive “Please Forgive Me,” the rousing “All for Love” featuring Rod Stewart and Sting for Disney’s version of The Three Musketeers, and the flamenco-styled “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” for Don Juan DeMarco, it seemed like Adams had accepted his fate.
But then came 1996’s 18 Til I Die. Perhaps the best description of the album is that it’s like two EPs combined into one. The first EP is Adams trying to stay true to who he had been and the second EP was him giving up and accepting who he had to become. Not surprisingly, the former, which consists of the rockers on the album and is full of the kind of corny come-ons, clumsy double-entendres and goofy charm that made him popular in the 80s, (“The Summer of ’69” doesn’t refer to the year – at least not to him), is fairly weak. Much stronger is the latter, which consists of romantic ballads and are some of the better songs in his discography.
Among the weaker songs on the album is the title track, which functions as his de facto mission statement of sorts:
Wanna be young the rest of my lifeBryan Adams, “18 Til I Die”
Never say no try anything twice
‘Til the angels come and ask me to fly
Gonna be 18 ’til I die 18 ’til I die
Can’t live forever that’s wishful thinkin’
Who ever said that must of been drinkin’
Don’t wanna grow up I don’t see why
I couldn’t care less if time flies by
Got that? Bryan Adams isn’t ready to mature and is going to rock til he drops (at least he will for half of the album). He makes that abundantly clear on “(I Wanna Be) Your Underwear,” a song which is exactly what you think it’s about. The song sounds like a bad David Lee Roth tune, complete with a Steve Vai-esque wolf-whistle opening riff and bad pickup lines that would even sound lame coming from Diamond Dave, let alone boy-next-door Bryan Adams. “I gotta be the spoon to stir your cream/ I wanna to be the one that really makes you scream/ I wanna be your lipstick when you lick it/ I wanna be your high heels when you kick it .” “We’re in heaven” this certainly isn’t.
Then there’s lead single, “The Only Thing That Looks Good on Me is You.” Consisting of more of his lame pickup lines, the song was widely panned by critics while Adams was criticized for trying to glam up his image in the music video. VH1 named it one of the most “Awesomely Bad Songs… Ever” in 2004 and that’s probably appropriate. I enjoy this song but it’s definitely a guilty pleasure.
The other rockers on this album are of a similar vein. “It Ain’t A Party – If You Can’t Come ‘Round” is fairly self-explanatory. “We’re Gonna Win” is his attempt to write a stadium anthem a la “We Will Rock You” or “Seven Nation Army.” “We’re gonna win/ Forget about a draw, we’re gonna score/ And then we’re gonna get a few more/ Maybe another one just to be sure.” “Weird Al” Yankovic’s superior “Sports Song” could very well have been a parody of “We’re Gonna Win”: “Your sports team is vastly inferior/ That simple fact is plainly obvious to see/ We’re gonna kick your collective posterior.” In fact, you could make an argument that several songs on this album are better as parodies – particularly “(I Wanna Be) Your Underwear” (in fact, Weird Al did a song consisting of bad pickup lines – and yes, it was awesome).
More problematic is “Black Pearl,” Adams’s PG version of “Brown Sugar” that would cause an uproar if it were released today. Lucky for him, these lyrics came out in the mid-90s, buried in the back end of Adams’s second-most popular album of that era. “She’s black coffee – little bit ‘o cream/ Sweet brown sugar – my midnight dream/ Black pearl – my kinda girl.” Oh boy…
Look, I get what he was going for – a CCR-meets-Rolling-Stones blues rock song. And this song is much less controversial than “Brown Sugar” which referenced slavery, the slave trade, rape, beating and other horrible things from the Antebellum South. At its core, “Black Pearl” is vintage Adams – an earnest and sentimental song about falling in love. But it sounds hollow coming from him since a) he’s never really played this style of music before – much less written about this subject matter and b) we don’t know what he’s trying to say with this song. Is he talking about interracial relationships and how people were still uncomfortable with them even in the 1990s? Is he talking about an actual woman he fell in love with or, at least, had a torrid affair with? Or was this just a writing exercise for him – an opportunity to show that he could write a song in this style and about this subject matter? Is the woman in this song merely a literary device – someone he threw in because he didn’t just want to write another generic love song and wanted to change things up a bit? Who knows? This song was mostly ignored when the album came out and wasn’t a single, so there isn’t a lot of information on it. One of the few in-depth interviews I located from 1996 doesn’t touch on the song at all.
In any event, the ballad half of the album is quite good. Between “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” which was on this album but actually came out a year before on the Don Juan DeMarco soundtrack; the inspirational ballad “Star,” which doubled as the theme from the Robin Williams movie Jack; and “I’ve Finally Found Someone,” a duet with Barbara Streisand that was used in her film, The Mirror Has Two Faces and is only available on import versions of this album, his evolution into Kenny Loggins 2.0 is well underway. Meanwhile, second-single “Let’s Make a Night We’ll Remember” is a much better single than “The Only Thing That Looks Good on Me is You” and is the type of earnest ballad he’s always excelled at writing.
In any event, “Let’s Make a Night We’ll Remember,” “I’ve Finally Found Someone,” and “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” were the three biggest-selling singles off this record and are probably the three best songs on it. Throw in “Star” and wedding song staple “I’ll Always Be There” (which sounds a lot like Richard Marx’s “Now and Forever“), and you have five legitimately good cuts on this record.
Indeed, one wonders whether this record might have done better had it been entirely ballads and adult-contemporary pop-rock. Instead, Adams tried to have his cake and eat it too – and it seemed to alienate many of the people who had been buying his records. 18 Til I Die sold a fraction of what Waking Up the Neighbours and his 1993 greatest hits album, So Far So Good, did. While Adams would enjoy a successful tour supporting 18 Til I Die, including two sold-out shows at Wembley Stadium, this album marked the end of his run as a hitmaker and worldwide star. His next album barely got any record label promotion in the U.S. and subsequent albums have been mostly ignored. His best-selling album in the U.S since this record was 2002’s Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron soundtrack. He’s also recorded songs for the 2006 films The Guardian starring Kevin Costner and the Emilio Estevez directed Bobby. He followed those up with songs for 2007’s Bridge to Terabithia and 2009’s Old Dogs, before co-writing 2018’s Pretty Woman: The Musical.
I guess he embraced his fate, after all.