30 Years Ago: Joe Walsh Resumes His Solo Career on ‘The Confessor’
Don Henley and Glenn Frey enjoyed the greatest success with their solo records after the Eagles split, but they weren't alone in their efforts to woo the band's fans to record stores. The early '80s saw new albums from former bandmates Don Felder, Randy Meisner and Timothy B. Schmit. For Joe Walsh, the band's breakup meant something different; rather than starting over, he only needed to resume a solo career that was already successful before he joined the Eagles.
Unfortunately for Walsh, it wasn't really that simple. Although he'd scored a handful of hits prior to becoming an Eagle, including the No. 12 pop single "Life's Been Good," his time with the band had introduced him to a legion of new fans who'd come to appreciate his contribution to their sound without asking or expecting him to carry much more than a song or two on a record. As Felder, Meisner and Schmit discovered to varying degrees, many Eagles fans experienced the group as something more than the sum of its parts — an act whose musical pleasures stemmed partly from the way their individual voices came together.
Still, even if he couldn't count on Hotel California-sized sales for his solo records, Walsh might have been able to carve out a wider niche for himself in the '80s if not for the deepening of his alleged substance abuse problem that undermined his focus at a time when he should have been capitalizing on his Eagles momentum. Making things worse, in a way, was the fact that Walsh's public image had always been goofy and nonchalant; with quirky cuts like "Space Age Whiz Kids" and "I.L.B.T.'s," as well as publicity stunts like announcing a tongue-in-cheek candidacy for the U.S. presidency in 1980, he gave the impression of a guy who didn't even take his own career all that seriously — which might have made it a little harder for fans to invest their time and dollars.
All that might not have mattered if Walsh had somehow still managed to deliver albums that offered some level of consistent quality, but by the mid-'80s, it was clear he'd lost his creative moorings and needed some kind of boost to nudge his music back on track. After the relative indifference that greeted 1983's You Bought It — You Name It, he decided to take things in a decidedly different direction.
Walsh's seventh solo outing, The Confessor, arrived in May 1985, and it was obvious from the cover art that the record represented a shift. Unlike the sight gags that went along with the flippant titles of earlier efforts like Bought It and There Goes the Neighborhood, The Confessor promised a moodier collection, reflected in artwork repurposed from the Caspar David Friedrich painting "Zwei Männer in Betrachtung des Mondes."
The differences in Walsh's work weren't just aesthetic. Stevie Nicks was his girlfriend at the time, and she acted as the (uncredited) third leg in a production trio that included Walsh and producer Keith Olsen, whose recent credits had included the Footloose soundtrack and records for Sammy Hagar, Rick Springfield, Pat Benatar and Whitesnake. Clearly, Olsen knew how to make an album that sounded at home on the radio, and that was obviously part of everyone's mission statement for The Confessor.
This had its advantages as well as its drawbacks. If some of Walsh's previous work sounded tossed off, it was often charmingly so — and whatever their flaws, those albums usually sounded like the work of a band. With The Confessor, Walsh dropped his usual small combo approach and surrounded himself with an army of session players that included some of L.A.'s finest — a lengthy list that included studio legend Waddy Wachtel, members of Toto and Randy Newman. The results sounded more disciplined than Walsh's recent efforts, but they also had less of his distinctive personality — and the synths and programmed drums brought to bear on the songs also sapped them of raw rock energy.
All of which is not to say that The Confessor doesn't have its moments. In fact, portions of it sound more focused and invested than anything Walsh had recorded in years, including the ambitious seven-minute title track (a top 10 Mainstream Rock hit) and the comparatively raucous "Good Man Down," co-written with Wachtel. The production may sound dated today, but it was perfectly in step with the times, and no more intrusive than anything rock fans heard on other recordings of the era. If the album had found a receptive audience, it could have signaled the start of a new chapter in his career — one that might have more effectively balanced his smart-aleck tendencies against a growing social conscience to deliver the best of both worlds.
Alas, things didn't turn out all that well for The Confessor, which stalled out at No. 65 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart in spite of a promotional campaign that included a run of dates opening for Foreigner. Although he'd keep drawing solid rock radio airplay with his next few albums, his sales continued to slip; following 1992's Songs for a Dying Planet, which failed to chart completely, Walsh's solo career went on hold for 20 years while he got sober, reunited with the Eagles and toured the world.
Happily, Walsh eventually returned to form with 2012's Analog Man. And looking back, it's easy to imagine he might not have missed making albums on his own during that time span — a period in which an old fun-loving rock 'n' roller could easily feel like a man out of time. "I still miss the good old days, before all this technology," he sighed during a 1985 interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "No one's playing an acoustic guitar anymore. I think it can be as powerful as an electric one. Everything is synthesizers now. I just like to use them for texture and coloring. I think we're getting farther and farther away from the music."
Sounding one final nostalgic note, Walsh added, "In the old days, we plugged in and said, 'Roll the tape and let's go!' Today it's megabucks. Phooey."
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