Singer/guitarist/keyboardist/producer Ric Ocasek made his first two solo albums while still leading the Cars; on both, bandmates and friends from groups he’s produced or just palled around with help him restyle and exfoliate the Cars’ clear-cut sound with more substantial lyrics and ambitions. Beatitude employs Jules Shear, Stephen Hague and Darryl Jenifer from the Bad Brains, letting synthesizers prevail in a richly textured and often languid popscape. Ocasek found work for guitarists Steve Stevens, Tom Verlaine, Roland Orzabal and G.E. Smith on This Side of Paradise, an album which brought him solo chart success for the single “Emotion in Motion.”
Ocasek didn’t bother with his usual celebrity casting call for Fireball Zone, which Nile Rodgers co-produced and played guitar on. A warmer, softer progression from the exacting, clinical pop of the Cars (which quietly closed down in the late ’80s), the album straddles a pleasing middle ground between the strict rhythms and fey singing of Ocasek’s instinctual designs and Rodgers’ rein-loosening funk. So while the backbeat snaps with firm, clocklike precision through the standard keyboard washes, other pieces in the sonic puzzle move at a more relaxed pace, oiled by smoochy soul backing vocals. Still, hearing the former chilly new wave auteur sincerely sing “Keep That Dream” (“get your disposition out of the rain”) and an original entitled “All You Need Is Love” is mighty unsettling. Although “Flowers of Evil” strikes a more appropriate post-punk chord, the song only gives Ocasek “the slicker city blues.”
That engaging side trip done, Ocasek zigzagged back across the road and climbed back into the sleek lines of his old ways on Quick Change World, reuniting with ex-Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes for an economical excursion in a familiar vehicle. Nearly dispensing with the previous album’s pollyanna philosophizing (he does wonder “why can’t we try to live in peace?” in “Help Me Find America”), Ocasek wastes little effort on complex lyrics. If not quite to the Cars’ schematic level, he strips the prose down to complain mildly about “Hard Times” while admitting to various measures of anxiety. “When I try to sit tight I get nervous and confused,” he notes in “Come Alive,” an agitated number (complete with skid marks) which also offers this characterization of official might: “They scream until their neck bleeds/And jack off in the wind.”
That Ocasek can still manage a perfectly accurate remake/remodel of the Cars design a decade on is a pyrrhic achievement at best: if he’s not stalled in creative neutral, then he’s forced by an unmanageable musical personality or blinkered vision to follow a stylistic vector he can’t redirect. Either way, the Cars’ original remains a more compelling expression of Ocasek’s urges (and influences: Roxy Music, Jonathan Richman, Lou Reed, John Cale) than anything on his ’90s solo records.