The Darkness are the kind of English rock band Americans have never understood. When they arrived in 2003, looking like Velvet Goldmine if it’d been directed by Russ Meyer, our nation’s lapsed indie rockers assumed they were an ironic hair-metal in-joke. But the Darkness weren’t kidding around. These guys were the genuine fake, the latest in a long line of working-class pub rats like the Sweet or Mott the Hoople, going for theirs by remaking themselves as preening glam-rock royals — pinkies raised, hearts ablaze. Their debut, Permission to Land, may have had a hilarious song about genital warts (“Growing on Me”), but if being “ironic” denotes not really caring, anyone who’s gotten within a stadium of Justin Hawkins’ champagne-glass-shattering coloratura knows that a guy who works that hard means what he keens.
Oblivious Yanks may have an even harder time getting their VH1 Classic-addled brains around the Darkness’ more toned-down, at times strikingly sincere, follow-up. The single “One Way Ticket” might open with simulated coke-sniffing, but the song, which recalls Permission‘s “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” assays the White Lady’s myriad evils, not her coquettish charms. Similarly, “Dinner Lady Arms,” a reference to flabby lunchroom attendants, is a tender tale of love by the tater-tot heat lamp rather than a condescending “no fatties” cheap shot.
Almost every over-the-top comedic flourish is left to the diamond-encrusted hands of ’70s Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, who lavishes the baleful ballad “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” with tidal waves of titanic strings, adds fifing foofery to the Celt-tinged rocker “Hazel Eyes,” and drops Queen allusions, such as the “bites the dust” bass line in “Knockers,” like calling cards. The band itself Queens out on the galloping “English Country Garden,” but Justin and his brother Dan Hawkins are never ones to be upstaged, even by their favorite influences. What made glam rock so great was its vaudevillian dedication to the Show, and whether Justin is emoting or mau-mauing or just flexing those bridge-cable vocal chords, he attacks his vowels like a velvet ninja while Dan turns decades of guitar decadence, from Mick Ronson to Mick Mars, into his own special thing. Call it irony. Call it sincerity. Just pray it calls you a cab when you pass out in its lap.