Style: Hard Rock
Release Date: 31 May 2019
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American audiences may not know the name of Jimmy Barnes, but it's one well worth looking into. I found him when he started to break into the UK market with his third solo album, Freight Train Heart, in 1987. It was a big deal, an attempt to expand his fame in Australia to the west, with a whole slew of major names backing him up, and it really should have done the job, full as it was with songs like Do or Die so powerful they seemed to come alive.
He did make a splash but never quite realised the fame he deserved in the west, but he's a superstar back home in Australia. It's difficult to point out just how big he is there, so let's just say that My Criminal Record is his twelfth number one album down under, restoring him to the top of that list again after Madonna and U2 caught him up. That's nine solo albums and three from his time as the lead singer in Cold Chisel, yet another name to track down if you're into roots-based rock led by killer vocals. And yes, they're still killer vocals, even though Barnes is now 63 years old.
He generally lends his blistering voice to no nonsense rock anthems with a lot of influences from outside the genre, not just the blues, but country, soul and gospel too. He's done a couple of albums dedicated to soul covers in his time, though this one is emphatically a rock album, often an angry one. One of the mote telling songs that he wrote here is I'm in a Bad Mood, an anthemic number that highlights his attitude this time out.
It's perhaps most obvious on Working Class Hero, a pessimistic John Lennon song clearly intended to be his take on Bob Dylan but which sounds, in the Plastic Ono Band original and even more in Barnes's hands, far more like a Steve Earle-esque alt country polemic. Lennon spat vitriol on the original but Barnes adds more of that here.
Shutting Down Our Town and Stargazer are country songs, the former written by singer/songwriter Troy Cassar-Daley. Both are rocked up here but never quite escape their heritage. My Demon (God Help Me) is a real stomper of a gospel number. Money and Class is just as much a stomper of a blues song. There's even a little surf on Stolen Car (The Road's on Fire, Pt II).
And, talking of that song, it's here twice in different forms and Stolen Car (The Road's on Fire, Pt I) may well be the best song on offer here. It's a quintessential Jimmy Barnes rocker, one of half a dozen songs he wrote here with his Cold Chisel compatriot, Don Walker. It starts subtly and builds atmosphere but becomes a real belter and nobody belts out songs like Barnes. The word 'Barnestorming' comes up a lot and has appropriately titled one of his tours.
My Criminal Record is also a long record, but there isn't a duff song here. It nudges just over an hour even before we count the four bonus tracks, two that could have made the album proper on their own merits and two alternate mixes, of Tougher Than the Rest and I'm in a Bad Mood, which are as worthy as the originals earlier on the album.
If you dig varied roots-based rock, this is essential and, if you don't know this singer, please treat it as a starting point. There's so much to find in his career and these thirteen (or fifteen or seventeen) tracks capably point in all the right directions. Frankly, he makes anything work. Just take the closer as an example. Tougher Than the Rest is a Bruce Springsteen song that could easily be sung in multiple genres: it would be a clichéd arena country song for one of those carbon copy hunks in hats or a safe, if ironic, easy listening rocker for someone like Jimmy Buffett, but Barnes makes it come alive.
This whole album is alive. Check it out.