Styx, “Difference in the World” (2011): One Track Mind

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There’s a world-weary melancholy, a hard-won realism, to Styx’s new song that didn’t exist in Tommy Shaw’s fun-rocking “Renegade” days, and that points the way out of the band’s more recent habit of backtracking.

It’s not just the rest of Regeneration, Vols. I and II, which finds Styx rerecording some of its best-known tracks with next-generation singer Lawrence Gowan. In fact, since the departure in 1999 of Dennis DeYoung, Shaw and Co. have issued five concert recordings and — in the last four years alone — at least seven best-of packages. Styx’s most recent original long-player was Big Bang Theory from all the way back in 2005, leaving many to wonder if the group was spent creatively.

Fast forward to “Difference in the World,” the finale on Disc 1 of a new 16-song compilation issued by this week by Eagle Records. Shaw, over a plaintive guitar shape, admits: “It’s hard to keep from giving up. It’s hard to make a difference in the world today.” But, through the course of a complex and involving musical soundtrack, Shaw rouses himself to try again — in a nice metaphor for the band itself.

There’s a similar maturity to Shaw’s new interpretation of his signature Styx hit “Crystal Ball,” where he updates the song’s original coming-of-age angst with a hard-eyed resonance that only comes from experience. But the difference on this new cut is more particular, more complete.

“Wait, wait, I take it all back — sometimes, you’ve just need to reel in the slack,” Shaw sings, as a gorgeous chorus gives way to this swooning guitar interlude. His demeanor is, by then, completely transformed: “Are the wolf or are you the sheep? Are you still asleep? It’s hard, but you’ve got to keep from giving up.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Recalling Styx favorites from ‘Equinox,’ ‘Crystal Ball,’ ‘Grand Illusion,’ ‘Paradise Theater’ and, yes, even ‘Kilroy Was Here’.]

This uplifting, every-man track also benefits from its musically diverse setting, and it’s easy to draw a straight line from Shaw’s left-turn bluegrass triumph of last year right to the smartly attenuated, refreshingly un-bombastic (all due respect, Mr. DeYoung) construction of “Difference in the World.”

In another era, all of that might have spelled a big comeback hit. For now, it will just have to do as a roadmap — finally — toward the next era for Styx.

Regeneration Vols. I and II features 13 Styx classics, along with “Difference” and two new interpretations of tunes recorded during Shaw’s tenure with Jack Blades and Ted Nugent in Damn Yankees, “High Enough” and “Coming of Age.” Gowan — who sounds in many ways like DeYoung, but with considerably less Broadway-style vocal theatrics — handles all but one of tunes most closely associated with Styx’s departed original lead singer. The exception is “Lorelei,” which features James “JY” Young on vocals. Ricky Phillips and Todd Sucherman continue to fill in for the late John Panozzo and the semi-retired Chuck Panozzo, respectively.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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