Def Leppard – Slang (1996; 2014 Deluxe Edition reissue)

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Slang has gotten an undeserved bad rap. Without near sixth-member Mutt Lange in the producer’s chair, it veered from the glossy hard rock of its predecessors, allowing the band to explore new musical territory and stretch its wings.

Slang sees Def Leppard taking serious chances for once and, as long as you aren’t expecting another Pyromania or Hysteria, they pay off. The band had already attempted to keep mining the gold they’d struck in the 80s with Adrenalize, a stiff attempt at recapturing old glories. (And for what it is, the follow-up collection, Retro Active, is a solid set of non-album tracks, especially if you leave out the multiple versions of those songs.)

Slang manages sounds vital today not because it recaptured Def Leppard at its peak but because it was so at-odds with everything else they’ve done. At the time, it was written off as bandwagon-jumping – electronic elements, “world music” instrumentation such as sarangi in “Turn To Dust,” even R&B with “Breathe a Sigh.” Though some fans still struggle with it, two decades on, it sounds less like a reaction against their earlier music and more like what it is – the sound of a band tiring of the constraints of their old sound, and finding inspiration and energy in taking chances.

It’s also the first album Def Leppard has managed to wrangle free from old label Mercury, with whom they’ve had long-term contract disagreements over digital rights. (So contentious are these disagreements that the band has recently recorded an as-yet unreleased version of Hysteria so that they can sell it on their own.) As such, this new deluxe edition is like the vault doors have been flung open with riches pouring forth. If this is what we have to look forward to with further releases – especially the earlier albums – fans could be in for some great surprises.

The many extra tracks (18 on the CD edition, 26 via iTunes) are mostly fascinating, if occasionally repetitive, composed mostly of unreleased alternates and demos for the album, along with a few genuinely “new” tracks. Immediate stand outs like a Phil Collen-sung “Gift Of Flesh” showcase just how important are his vocal contributions behind Joe Elliot. The band could almost pull off Collen taking over lead vocals and few would ever notice.

For those who simply can’t handle the band’s light lean toward the experimental, the alternate takes and demos offer the opportunity to hear a kind of “rough around the edges” hard-rock version of Slang.

An alternate take of “Truth?” makes it much more obvious that the band was trying to keep up with the mainstream competition. It’s hard not to notice the effect of then-popular grunge on the band in the alternate version of “Truth?”, the simplified riffing and hollow guitar tone bearing an uncanny resemblance to Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Affair.”

An alternate version of the title track comes in the form of “Raise Your Love,” a clunky hard-rocker that is sorely lacking the funky turns that made the album version so strong. Even so, these tracks offer up a version of the album that would have tread familiar waters, and while they’re solid in their own right, they do make it obvious why they opted for the more worldly, laid-back approach on the album proper.

While the nearly two-dozen extra tracks (even more if you get the iTunes version) may sound like overkill, they provide a fascinating insider’s view of an album in the making. Even if Slang didn’t appeal to fans the first time around, it may reward many with surprises twenty years on.

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