One serious problem with a legendary band making a comeback is that inevitably, it tries to retrofit itself into the legend. In the process, the music turns into a cliche. Lynyrd Skynyrd, after quite an unfortunate reformation in 1987 with Johnnie Van Zant succeeding his brother Ronnie (who along with Steve and Cassie Gaines, had died in a plane crash in 1977), and yet another reformation in 1991 (with disastrous consequences that included a stab at, er, rap), have re-reformed. The result is God & Guns, an album in which the Southern Rock masters have come up with the only thing worse than sounding like a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band: they sound like a Kid Rock tribute band.
Have I fallen prey to unrealistic expectations? I don’t think so. The album starts with crashing guitars and a muscular riff in ‘Still unbroken’ and does textbook stuff that’s ‘Skynyrd’ alright. But the opening track’s flat beer. Hell, it could have been the title track for the latest season of True Blood. (The song was actually the official theme song of a pay-per-view TV show-wrestling event.)
‘Simple life’ confirms Skynyrd’s Kid Rockness. Very quickly you realise what the problem is: Ronnie Van Zant’s vocals and the band’s 70s sound were the perfect marriage of redneck swagger with lyrical sensibilities. Even if one sidesteps classics like ‘Free bird’ and ‘Sweet home Alabama’, Skynyrd’s musical appeal wasn’t Ted Nugent-style machoness, but the swamp dog headiness of boys with their guitars and the Confederate flag in the background — a sonic space since occupied by the likes of the Kings of Leon. Johnnie’s vocals, that fit in with the band’s Middle-of-the-Road country-rock output, sound too hokey.
The ‘true defenders of the American South’ tag is also worn way too seriously. The slide on ‘Little thing called you’ is left hanging even as Ronnie bawls out the song in his grating style. ‘Southern ways’ attempts some old-time honkey tonk magic by using an inverted chord-riff from ‘Sweet home Alabama’. But here again, we have ‘tribute band’ written all over.
Truly unbearable is ‘Unwrite that song,’ that sounds like a downright lovechild of a Gareth Brooks song and ‘We are the world’. That shudder is followed by the only number from this album that leaps out to grab. The marshland slithering pace of ‘Floyd’ tells us the story of a disappearing moonshine-maker. Thanks to the naked growl of Rob Zombie who guests on the track, the song is hypnotic. The swamp monster leaps out: “And the people say aye aye aye hear the hound dogs moan/ Aye aye aye now that Floyd is long gone/ And the creeper was a creepin’ and the souls they were hollerin’ singin’/ Aye aye aye aye aye...”
“That ain’t my America’ takes a paunchy slug at Obamaland. What comes out is a treacle-take on the band’s opinion of America’s fine soldiers doing their thankless job. The title track continues playing along this ‘socio-political’ track and is supposed to be the Southern man’s impassioned response to Barack Obama’s reference in a speech to how small-town America “clung to their God and guns”. As Johnnie drones on about “I don’t know how he grew up/ but it sure wasn't down at the huntin’ club/ ’cause if it was he’d understand/ just a little bit more about the working man,” you desperately wish for Ronnie Van Zant’s more believable presence.
God & Guns, even if you force yourself to ignore the band’s pedigree, is a dud. Till the next break-up and subsequent re-re-reformation then.