It’s perfectly possible to separate the art from the artist. Jimmy Page’s behaviour does not render the Led Zeppelin catalogue unlistenable; cinemas are now showing a film celebrating the life of Elvis, which rather glosses over the fact that Priscilla Beaulieu became his girlfriend when she was 14, but the music still sounds spectacular.
Jeff Beck’s collaboration with Johnny Depp, though, is an odd case. Partly because while a British court decided Depp had beaten his now ex-wife, Amber Heard, he then won his case on the same issue in a US court, so people can (and have) taken diametrically opposing stances on his actions. And partly because this record follows so closely on the heels of that second case, with social media still alive with vituperative comment on it, 18 is an uncomfortable listen, frequently giving the sense of Depp taking revenge.
Ordinarily, a new Jeff Beck album would pass without much comment in most quarters. It’s the presence of Depp that makes it noteworthy. And while the fact that it’s been planned for three years protects Beck from any accusations of cashing in on headlines to generate sales, the presence of Depp loyalists coming to view their hero playing alongside Beck at his recent shows suggests that 18 will reach a wider audience than any Beck record for some time. What will they get? Instrumental guitar pieces, of course – perfectly pleasant but wholly unnecessary versions of Davy Spillane’s Midnight Walker, and Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) and Caroline, No, from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds – which sound custom made for montages of gulls swooping above cliffs on the Travel Channel, no matter how gorgeously pellucid Beck’s playing is. They’ll get some serviceable covers sung by Depp – the Miracles’ Ooo Baby Baby (his best performance, in an unlikely falsetto), Dennis Wilson’s Time, the Everly Brothers’ Let It Be Me, and an entirely redundant version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On.
And they will get a handful of tracks that are plainly meant to play to Depp’s image, and his own self-perception, including two he wrote. Those two – unsurprisingly, given the quality of the other compositions – are the weakest musically, if the most revealing lyrically. Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade is little more than a minimal bass riff with Beck’s guitar squealing away on top and Depp snarling a barely coherent rant: “You’re sitting there like a dog with a seven-year itch / You keep serving up fast to make a barrel of fish.” All of which is punctuated by a downpitched voice intoning “Big time … motherfucker” as a percussive accompaniment. It’s juvenile and asinine and just not very good.
This Is a Song for Miss Hedy Lamarr is better musically – its standard post-Beatles piano ballad structure is disrupted by the drums (played by Depp) beating a military tattoo for its first 90 seconds, rather than going straight for the mid-paced plod. Beck’s closing solo, too, is the best on the record. But the lyrics. Oh dear. Actor and inventor Lamarr, one supposes, is being used as a cipher for Depp: misunderstood, abused, unfairly traduced: “Erased by the same world that made her a star / Spun out of beauty, trapped by its web.” Of course, Lamarr went into seclusion rather than making an album to win public sympathy.
The remaining covers are equally pointed. John Lennon’s Isolation and Janis Ian’s Stars both lay on the pity-poor-me shtick, though the latter might be the best track on 18, partly because Janis Ian is a much more nuanced writer about the vicissitudes of fame than Johnny Depp, and partly because Depp’s vocal performance – an unmannered, gentle baritone – suits the material.
And then there are the two horrorshows – versions of Killing Joke’s The Death and Resurrection Show and the Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs. The former simply lacks the menace and terror that are Killing Joke’s stock in trade – it’s like cosplay, so clearly about projecting danger, which is an odd thing to want to project given that Depp’s legal travails have concerned whether he really is dangerous. Venus in Furs is an odd choice for the same reason – why now, of all times, would he choose to perform a song about sado-masochism? It is disastrously recast as goth metal, losing all the creeping dread of the original. Where Lou Reed really did come across as tired and weary, Depp just sounds like a bored robot.
It’s to Beck’s credit that alone among the guitar heroes of the 1960s UK R&B boom, he has not retreated into coffee-table blues. His career is replete with startling changes of direction, and unusual collaborators, which probably accounts for him being revered by musicians, but never really achieving stardom to match his skill. But 18 is a peculiar and hugely uneven record. And it would be a peculiar and hugely uneven record even if Depp had never been near a courtroom in his life.