When an artist who is best known as a member of a band releases a solo album, that album is often held up to a standard of having to justify its existence as something separate from the main band. It can be a tough ask.
When Life Was Hard And Fast is Ricky Warwick’s seventh solo album, so it’s by no means a major departure for him to release a project like this. However, since 2012 he’s been best known as the frontman of Black Star Riders, and on first listen, When Life Was Hard And Fast feels like it could easily have been another BSR record.
Dig a little deeper, though, and plenty is going on to ensure it’s seen firmly as another strand of Warwick’s diverse career. Sonically there’s a lot of overlap with the traditional Black Star Riders sound. The album’s first three tracks are punctuated by harmonising dual guitar hooks, so it’s familiar ground for Warwick’s existing fanbase. Instead, Warwick’s solo run is in his lyrics and tone. Outside of Black Star Riders, he can be much more personal and addresses fading youth lost love and fractious politics with personality and tact.
“No-one thought to tell me…the faces in the picture would fade away so soon…that today could be the last,” is the title track’s refrain, while ping-pong delay guitars give texture to the slightly softer Tom Petty-esque ‘You Don’t Love Me.’
There’s a nod to his Almighty past and shades of Motorhead in the frantic and furious ‘Never Corner A Rat’ and again on ‘Still Alive’, where the distorted vocals and narrative storyline carry echoes of Phil Lynott’s influence. Keith Nelson’s slide guitar throughout ‘Still Alive’ is one of the album’s standout features. As Warwick explains in an interview with XS Noize, recording as a solo artist without a band gave him the freedom to call on friends and colleagues who could add to individual songs without risking stepping on another band member’s toes. Elsewhere, Joe Elliot (Def Leppard), Dizzy Reed (Guns n Roses) and Andy Taylor (Duran Duran) lend their talents with great effect. Unlike other albums where collaborations and guest stars feel shoehorned in and upset the flow, Warwick maintains a consistency across When Life Was Hard And Fast, which ensures the album’s various parts are brilliantly knitted together.
‘Fighting Heart’ is cleverly produced with short verses and regular returns to the instantly memorable chorus. Like the opening three tracks, Warwick’s melodic hooks are front and centre, and he shows that hard rock can be as catchy as it is aggressive.
Ballads are always risky territory for rock albums, but Warwick’s excellent songwriting keeps him on the right track. ‘I Don’t Feel At Home’ features those trademark dual guitars, but the addition of acoustic guitar and Warwick’s softer vocal delivery gives the song a distinctly different feel to the rest of the album, and it comes as a welcome release two-thirds of the way through. Everything’s stripped back even further for the tender ‘Time Don’t Seem To Matter’ a song written for and featuring Warwick’s daughter Pepper – and penultimate track ‘Clown of Misery’, which Warwick reveals is a phone recording of a rough idea he felt couldn’t be bettered with additional production. A brave inclusion, perhaps but a rare insight for fans into Warwick’s writing process.
When Life Was Hard And Fast finishes with a sharp and fast endorphin hit which has a live set closer with extended solos and audience interaction written all over it. It’s not the album’s strongest track and begins with a fairly odd recorded phone conversation [what is it with these on rock albums??], but rounds things out on a satisfying high.
On the surface, When Life Was Hard And Fast is everything you’d want in a hard rock album; dual guitar riffs, huge singalong choruses and plenty of sonic aggro to go around. Warwick has combined those staples with lyrics of depth and sincerity, great production and guest performances to create an addition to his catalogue, which more than holds its own.