By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
When he performs alone, on a stage with nothing but his acoustic guitar to prop him up, Bruce Dickinson (so called "Broose" so there's no confusing him with Iron Maiden's frontman, as though that were possible) comes off as an earnest pop performer with a surprisingly deft touch; he's a master of his instrument, a virtuoso on the guitar but no show-off, and a more-than-capable singer-songwriter whose wry words are offset by a deceptively pretty delivery. But that's on stage, far away from the technology and time he's afforded in the studio.
On his two solo albums (last year's self-titled release, just re-issued, and this new disc), Dickinson the would-be pop star is obscured by the would-be perfectionist art-rocker who takes a standard like Buddy Holly's "Wishing" and then skews it just enough so it loses its pretty pop sheen and takes on an almost warped beauty. It sounds as though he's singing it from the bottom of a well, his slightly distorted voice blending with Meredith Miller's until it sounds like one androgynous voice--inhuman, really, appropriate when the acoustic suddenly goes electric and the drone picks up the pace.
If pop poppins--the frothy mock-rock band Dickinson fronted for years--provided a release for Dickinson's naif poetry and ethereal pop, then as a solo artist Dickinson is the eternal eccentric grown up and settled down. Now, he's given to the concretes instead of the abstracts: A song like "The King of All I Need" may well be open to interpretation (it's either put-down or self-critique), but Dickinson now is more concerned with what the words say when put together rather than how they merely sound. "I am the king of all I need," he sings, the song sounding not unlike something off a late '80s XTC record, then he goes on to list all the things he wants--a mansion, a major-league baseball team, a 50-foot TV, limos, and motorcycles. Why does he deserve these things? "I'm an American, this is my dream," he insists, sounding so far above it all.
As on his debut, Dickinson fills in the gaps between songs with sound effects (short bursts of electronic noise, answering-machine messages, new-agey classical segues, and other necessary fodder), but here they're just speedbumps on the way to something far better--the songs themselves, each more fully realized than anything Dickinson's ever managed. If Dickinson's still a bit too obsessed with sound over song--"A Night of Droning," an otherwise lovely ballad, is more like a night of drowning, the tune buried underneath layers of overdubs and effects--Exploring is still a perfectly realized pop album from start to end. Dickinson's no longer seeking his own voice, he's learning a new language.