Revisiting: Don Henley, "Inside Job"

Does this album still carry the bitter sting of disappointment more than 20 years later?

Revisiting: Don Henley, "Inside Job"
Would it kill him to smile? Probably

The summer of 1989 was peak Walkman time for me. In addition to having to bike to and from summer school, I also embarked on a weeklong 50-mile hike with members of the Boy Scout troop I'd abandoned for girls the year before; between training for that and actual time spent on the trail, I had headphones over my ears even more than I would have under normal circumstances.

It was a pretty good time to be mainlining music, too: the year's warmer months found me mainlining a list of records that was relatively short — we still had to pay for stuff back then, don't forget — but deeply impactful on my listening DNA. I will not defend these albums on objective qualitative grounds; I was 15, and also, the heart wants what it wants. Anyway, I spent untold hours listening to Night Ranger's Big Life (recently discovered via a family friend), One by the Bee Gees (purchased after enjoying the title track/leadoff single), Billy Squier's Hear & Now ("Don't Say You Love Me" is killer and I will fight anyone who disagrees), and probably also Bad Company's Dangerous Age. The album I listened to most of all, however, might have been Don Henley's The End of the Innocence.

I'm not sure how I ended up buying End of the Innocence, given that I didn't really care about Henley or the Eagles at that point. I suppose I must have really liked the title track, because back then, I tended to wait until I'd heard a few singles that made me feel sufficiently confident that an album was worth my money. However it happened, that record ended up being lodged in my Walkman for weeks on end, to the point that I got pretty tired of it and ultimately couldn't tell whether I actively enjoyed or hated it. It certainly didn't help that it kept spinning off singles until late 1990; it's uniquely aggravating to hear, say, "New York Minute" on the radio a fucking year and a half after you had it in your own personal heavy rotation.

In the years after Innocence ended its interminable chart run, I slowly and sporadically explored Henley's earlier solo efforts; the same family friend who had a copy of Night Ranger's Big Life also owned Henley's post-Eagles coming out party I Can't Stand Still, and at some point, I picked up a cassette of Building the Perfect Beast. Of the former, I remember little; of the latter, I can say with a slight degree of shame that while I loathed "The Boys of Summer" when it was popular, I dug "All She Wants to Do Is Dance" while it was on the charts, and I found the pensive cassette/CD-only bonus track "A Month of Sundays" to be something like a revelation.

All of which is to say that while I was not necessarily a rabid Henley fan, I was certainly curious to hear what he'd do after Innocence, and given that I was an on-and-off member of the rock 'n' roll pundit class, I also eyed his lengthy war against his label, Geffen, with a certain degree of interest. For those who weren't paying attention at the time, the details are too lengthy and dull to get into; suffice it to say that Henley wanted to leave Geffen even though he owed the label a few albums, and opted to take the novel approach of falling back on a law that was intended to cover contracts signed by actors, not musicians. Ultimately, the Eagles ended up getting back together, a reunion that presented such a phenomenal cash cow that Henley was finally allowed to go free after giving Geffen the wildly popular Hell Freezes Over Eagles LP as well as his first best-of compilation, 1995's Actual Miles.

Of course, even after all that, it still took Henley until the turn of the century before he was finally ready to re-emerge with his fourth solo LP. I think some of this can be explained by simple scheduling conflicts — the Eagles were raking in the fucking dough on the live circuit — but after Innocence, Henley reached the stratosphere of artists who can call their own shots and take however long they choose to finish their next album. This was an unavoidable consequence of releasing a record that went six times platinum, but it was also a horrible development for a guy like Henley, who never wanted to listen to anyone in the first place. Freed from his imagined indentured servitude, he was perfectly free to crawl all the way up his own asshole and stay there for over a decade.

Don Henley seems for all the world like a complete prick, but give him this much: He's never bothered to hide that. When his fourth album, Inside Job, was released the day after my birthday in 2000, I knew the old sourpuss was high on his own multiplatinum supply, so my expectations weren't exactly sky high. Even taking that into consideration, I still vividly remember the deep, deep disappointment I felt after sitting through all 13 songs and 70 minutes of what struck me as deeply self-indulgent, faux intellectual, largely tuneless hooey. I don't know how quickly I sold it back to my local used CD emporium, but it didn't take long, and ever since, I have placed Inside Job high on the list of highly anticipated albums that hurt me.

The leadoff single. I should have known

So deep is my disdain for Inside Job that I would have been perfectly happy to never listen to it again if not for some recent foolishness on the part of my Record Player Podcast co-host Matt Wardlaw, who made the patently absurd claim that this is not only a good Don Henley album, but the best Don Henley album. Readers, I ask you: What the fuck? We all know Matt is one of the more forgiving professional listeners in the world — it's part of his charm — but come on. This gormless waste of time and money is the best record Henley's put together outside the Eagles? No one would seriously suggest this, would they?

Well. Such is my respect for Matt that I wondered whether I might have simply been in the wrong place to appreciate Inside Job upon its long-awaited release. Perhaps the weight of expectations was simply too heavy to bear. Perhaps nearly 25 years later, I might be able to finally appreciate the hidden depths and nuances of Henley's post-Innocence opus. Thus chastened and emboldened, I resolved to listen to it again.

Long story short: While I love Matt Wardlaw and will happily follow him into any podcast or longform writing collaboration, he is simply out of his gourd when it comes to Inside Job. It's probably better than I gave it credit for being in 2000 — I think I can sort of hang with maybe half of it now, self-serious and overlong though it may be — but it absolutely cannot compete with the records Henley made when he was still being forced to take notes from David Geffen. The list of artists who can be relied upon to deliver compelling music without outside input is infinitesimally small, and based on the evidence presented here (not to mention on his next album, 2015's dismally dull Cass County), Don Henley does not make the cut.

Still, I have to hand it to my old buddy — revisiting Inside Job forced me to concede that it isn't quite the monolithic turd I'd long believed it to be. Whereas my initial takeaway was that the only gems to be sifted from the wreckage were "My Thanksgiving," "Annabel," and Henley's cover of "For My Wedding," today's listen left me feeling kinder toward a longer list of cuts. Opening track "Nobody Else in the World But You" does sound like an aging rocker straining to be hip by welcoming the clatter of a "hip-hop" drum program, and Stevie Wonder might as well not be there, but it's painless enough. "Taking You Home" is adult contemporary pabulum, but it's well-crafted and smoothly produced. "Everything Is Different Now" is smug, but the way the chorus opens everything up is undeniably effective. "Workin' It" is resolutely middle of the road, but it's also just the type of mid-grade AOR cut that used to be the perfect leadoff single for records that held better things in store. So on and so forth.

All that being said, I'm not letting Matt entirely off the hook. So many of these songs are demonstrably the work of a man who believes that every thought that falls out of his head is important, and that any song that can be 3:05 might as well be 7:13, and that singing about Burmese cats and farts serves as scintillating listening material. Balancing the okay against the awful, I still say Inside Job marks the spot where a preeminent musical voice of his generation well and truly lost the plot, and he's yet to rediscover it. Judge for yourself, but don't say I didn't warn you.

This record isn't very good