The Unforgiven

The Unforgiven

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The Unforgiven Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Storming across the dusty streets of a Western town are the Unforgiven, a sextet of street slingers hailing from the mean streets of Los Angeles in 1986. It was a rough time, one when money hung heavy in the air, one when any group of rocking vagabonds could possibly strike gold if they were teamed with the right set of prospectors, which the Unforgiven undoubtedly were. Surviving a furious bidding war, the Unforgiven signed with CAA and manager Doc McGhee, who was then riding high on the success of Mötley Crüe, and set up shop at Elektra Records, where they were put in the studio with John Boylan, the guy who produced Boston's debut a decade earlier. The Unforgiven didn't sound like a relic of the '70s, nor did it seem like it belonged to the punk and metal undergrounds where leader John Henry Jones used to roam. It is a record that thoroughly embodies its time, capturing every misbegotten and forgotten trend of 1986. At their core, the Unforgiven were an American version of Big Country borrowing the Last Gang in Town persona of the Clash: messianic rockers determined to follow in the footsteps of U2 right into an oversized arena. Some of their Western imagery had thematic ties to the nascent roots rock of the '80s -- the Los Angeles-based indie Slash had plenty of nervy, back-to-basic bands and cowpunk was on the rise in 1986 -- but the Unforgiven only had designs on MTV and AOR radio, so they made a massive, steel-girded rock, an album constructed to intimidate via its sheer size. Apart from an instrumental version of "Amazing Grace" that attempts to end the album on a lyrical note, every one of the songs piles on the guitars and shout-along vocals, anchored by rhythms that echo in a cavern. This is Big Music, rock & roll as a calling, but where the Alarm, U2, and Big Country often looked outside themselves and found the troubles at large, Jones constructs ad hoc myths out of half-remembered TV Westerns. It's all a façade, which perhaps would've made The Unforgiven an ideal album for 1986, a transitional year in the reign of MTV when the network was in need of a big new guitar band to rally the troops. Instead, The Unforgiven stiffed, possibly because it's all sound and fury and no hooks, but probably because it was so damn silly. These were detriments in 1986 but, years later, they're attributes because this hubris captures the spirit of 1986 in a way so many hit albums did not. [Real Gone's 2014 reissue contains two bonus tracks: a single edit of "I Hear the Call" and the non-LP "The Long Run Out (Ballad of the Unforgiven)."]

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