As one of the most influential and innovative electric guitarists in rock history, Jeff Beck has recorded and toured with enough musical luminaries over the past six decades to fill the guest lists at multiple Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. So it’s totally fitting that his first full-length release in six years should be a collaboration with … Johnny Depp?
The legendary six-string genius and the actor got along when Beck guested on Rise, the 2019 album from Hollywood Vampires (a long-running supergroup co-founded by Depp with Alice Cooper and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry), that Depp and Beck decided to make an entire album together in 2020 as a pandemic time-killer. But Depp’s decision to release a record like this now, just weeks after the verdict in the defamation suit his ex-wife Amber Heard filed against him, is bizarre, and in some ways offensive, especially as the album leans into a kind of macho rock cliché that has long been freighted with notions of sexism. 18 is almost confrontationally tone deaf.
Titled as a nod to the “fountain of youth” feeling that the project reportedly gave them, 18 contains 11 covers of songs by artists ranging from the Beach Boys and John Lennon to the Velvet Underground and Killing Joke, with two Depp-penned originals thrown in. On the occasions when his slinky guitar takes center stage — like on melancholy instrumental renditions of the Pet Sounds tracks “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” and “Caroline, No,” or the first half of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” — the results are predictably serviceable. But Depp’s pro forma, double-tracked vocals provide scant additional justification for the project’s existence; and in a few unfortunate cases (like when he attempts a soul croon on Smokey Robinson’s “Ooo Baby Baby”) you won’t be able to find the skip button fast enough. Unfortunately, one of the album’s more successful musical moments is also potentially offensive. It’s an overhaul of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs,” on which Beck’s and Depp’s talents combine to put an interesting spin on the classic source material. But coming from an accused abuser, the original song’s intimations of S&M and domination feel stomach-turning.
Though Beck says he was initially attracted to this project by the impressive quality of Depp’s songwriting, “Sad Mother Fuckin’ Parade” — an original track with vitriolic lyrics that have caused many to interpret it as an expression of Depp’s anger towards Heard — sounds more like a foul-mouthed industrial retread of “Loser” (the 1994 hit by the other Beck) than evidence of a promising tunesmith. Topically, it’s downright ugly. “You’re sittin’ there like a dog with a seven-year itch … and I think you’ve said enough for one motherfuckin’ night,” Depp growls. It probably felt cathartic when he blathered it out at the time, but now it just sounds like more violence, a spoiled jerk retreating to his classic-rock safety zone in order to luxuriate in his own cruelty.
Depp’s other original is the equally bizarre “This Is a Song for Miss Hedy Lamarr,” his “Candle in the Wind”-like tribute to the late actress and inventor. Between the song’s slow-building verses, its plaintive chorus cry of “I don’t believe in humans anymore!” and a couple of thrilling slide breaks from Beck, “Miss Hedy Lamarr” attempts to deliver the sort of musical payoff that’s too often absent from 18. Still, it is probably the case that a tribute to an iconic female actress wasn’t the best idea coming from a man who is widely regarded as having destroyed the life of his own wife. It’s as if women in the historical abstract are cool and worth celebrating; in real life, they’re just a motherfuckin’ drag, man.