Someone might want to check in on Harry Shearer. Despite nearing his third decade on The Simpsons, Shearer’s next career move is to revive everyone’s third favorite character from a cult classic, simply as a vehicle by which to mock his own looming mortality. A jab at late-career self-reflection pieces from artists such as David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing) finds the former Spinal Tap bass player going it alone, turning the focus inward without the aid of his bandmates. Like most solo efforts from actual bassists, the album is mainly a forgettable slog.
Even for a throwaway novelty record, Smalls Change delivers lazy, groan-inducing material that makes the jokes in This is Spinal Tap feel like Oscar Wilde quips by comparison. The asinine premises serving as the backbone for tracks like “Butt Call” and “Hell Toupee” would have felt dated a decade ago. It’s as if Shearer scooped up a handful of rejected Ray Stevens bits and slapped a generic hair metal backing on them. In 2018, there is no room for a song like “She Put the Bitch in Obituary.” Even the more inspired numbers, like “MRI” (featuring Dweezil Zappa), feel overlong and unnecessary. There’s a reason the movie only lingered on its musical punchlines for a brief moment.
The one gimmick the album has going for it is its impressive parade of guest musicians. It would be significantly more interesting to get fly-on-the-wall footage of these packed recording sessions than to listen to the final product. From Paul Shaffer to Richard Thompson, from David Crosby to Taylor Hawkins, Shearer flipped through his rolodex and called in every favor he could, banking on the goodwill of Spinal Tap’s enthusiastic fanbase. There is a lot of talent at play here – and they are able to painstakingly craft the sound Shearer aims to spoof – but that makes it all the more disheartening when they stoop to the level of this bland, scatological humor. The most glaring example, of course, is “Memo to Willie,” a four-minute penis joke that finds Donald Fagen and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (presumably at gunpoint) defiling one of their most beloved tracks for the sake of a cheap laugh.
The jokes rarely land, the overlying gag wears out its welcome long before it completes its hour-long runtime, and the hair metal framework is cloyingly repetitive, even by the incredibly low bar set by the genre. At its best, Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing) is an easy joke, but as it trudges on, it becomes a downright chore to get through. The best humor is rooted in truth, and the trials of aging are a prime basis for a few laughs, but this record runs any potential comedic nuance into the ground. Even at a time when overblown nostalgia is dusting off forgotten characters from pop culture’s simpler days, this album feels like a toothless cash grab. The project takes a swing at septuagenarian rock stars, but it ends up morphing into the kind of album it’s aping. Male pattern baldness and erectile dysfunction aren’t the only worries that should be on Harry Shearer’s mind.