Ted Nugent once equated the capability to rock heavily with a willingness to let one's "balls drag on the concrete." Pushing the hirsute beauty of that image aside, one detects the kernel of truth nestled inside: Heavy rock has always been championed by manly men proclaiming their virility through power chords and sheer volume. For more than 30 years, Iggy Pop has been an icon in this field. His early work with the Stooges was practically a paean to his genitalia. With all the cross-dressing, peanut-butter baths and public nudity backed by blitzkrieg guitars, the Ig of Stooge issued a proclamation throughout the Kingdom of Rock: "I have elephantitis of the nuts! Worship my heaviness!"
But now it's 30 years later, and with Iggy's new album, Avenue B, he turns the volume down on the testicle-sparking spectacle of Iggy Pop and confronts the facts: Jim Osterberg is 50 years old, and if he keeps dragging his balls across the street, Iggy Pop is going to end up emasculated and looking foolish, like Ted Nugent -- or, even worse, Ozzy Osbourne.
Avenue B reflects a new Iggy Pop. The crunchy guitars and chest-thumping of Naughty Little Doggie and American Caesar are gone, replaced by campfire-on-the-beach-type acoustic-guitar strumming and introspective lyrics concerning his recent divorce and his ensuing romantic mistakes with younger women. Over restrained drums, hotel-lounge organs and slinky vibes, Iggy reels off verses reminiscent of Serge Gainsbourg. Lines like "Her French is perfect/so's her butt/She wears two crosses/tangled up" (from "Nazi Girlfriend") and "I'm a practical American from the Middle West/I could piss on a grave while welcoming guests" (from "Felt the Luxury") are classic Iggy, only now they're not the roaring boasts of hard-rock youth. Rather, they're delivered as bitter recriminations of a weathered cabaret singer. Iggy has always lived and died by the truth, and the truths in Avenue B are hard-won from a lifetime in the corner of the public eye.
The Street Walkin' Cheetah with a Heart Full of Napalm has a fear of intimacy and worries that his soul is corrupt. He feels he doesn't have much life left, and he wants to make what remains worthwhile and not live it alone. His willingness to admit these truths, and do so in a subdued fashion, is what makes Iggy heavy, not a phalanx of feedback-spewing guitars cranked to 11. He's not Iggy Stooge anymore, and to continue to remake the Stooges' albums would be a mistake. "I wanted to find a balance between joy and dignity on my way out," he intones in the opening monologue, "No Shit." He's made a pretty good start.