The Timing of Johnny Depp’s New Record With Jeff Beck Is Weird. The Music on It Is…Solid

As one of the most influential and innovative electric guitarists in rock history, Jeff Beck has recorded and toured with enough musical luminaries over the past six decades to fill the guest lists at multiple Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. So it’s totally fitting that his first full-length release in six years should be a collaboration with …  Johnny Depp? 

Yep, you read that right. The legendary six-string genius and the embattled actor apparently clicked so well when Beck guested on Rise, the 2019 album from Hollywood Vampires (a long-running supergroup co-founded by Depp with Alice Cooper and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry), that Depp and Beck decided to make an entire album together in 2020 as a pandemic time-killer. Depp, of course, has been in the news a little bit lately — and the timing of the record’s release, just weeks after the end of his co-starring appearance in the most highly publicized courtroom drama since the O.J. trial, is indeed interesting, if not downright weird. If TMZ has a guy on staff whose beat is “classic-rock covers records that may or may not really need to exist,” this is clearly that dude’s time to shine. But listen folks, in the fast-paced world of record album promotion rollouts, you gotta strike while the iron is hot; that’s just good business sense. 

Titled as a nod to the “fountain of youth” feeling that the project reportedly gave them, 18 — which contains 11 covers of songs by artists ranging from the Beach Boys and John Lennon to the Velvet Underground and Killing Joke, with two Depp-penned originals thrown in for good measure — certainly sounds like it was a fun way for Beck and Depp to kill time during the Covid lockdown. Alas, a good studio buzz isn’t necessarily an indication of musical success.

Still, 18 is worth a cursory spin, for Beck fans and tabloid ambulance chasers alike. On the occasions when his slinky guitar takes center stage — like on melancholy instrumental renditions of the Pet Sounds tracks “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” and “Caroline, No,” or the first half of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” — the results are absolutely sublime. But Depp’s double-tracked vocals, while generally serviceable, provide scant additional justification for the project’s existence; and in a few unfortunate cases (like when he attempts a soul croon on Smokey Robinson’s “Ooo Baby Baby”) you won’t be able to find the skip button fast enough. Only on a bracingly dramatic overhaul of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” do Beck’s and Depp’s talents truly combine to put an interesting spin on the classic source material.

Though Beck says he was initially attracted to this project by the impressive quality of Depp’s songwriting, “Sad Mother Fuckin’ Parade” — an original track with vitriolic lyrics that have caused many to interpret it as an expression of Depp’s less than wholly generous sentiments toward his ex-wife Amber Heard — sounds more like a foul-mouthed industrial retread of “Loser” (the 1994 hit by the other Beck) than evidence of a promising tunesmith. “You’re sittin’ there like a dog with a seven-year itch … and I think you’ve said enough for one motherfuckin’ night,” Depp growls. It probably felt cathartic when he blathered it out at the time, but now it just sounds like a mean-spirited victory lap. You won, man, take it easy. 

That said, Depp does come up with a couple of bright, shining moments. “This Is a Song for Miss Hedy Lamarr,” his “Candle in the Wind”-like tribute to the late actress and inventor, actually lends some credence to Beck’s assessment – despite its almost admirably unpromising title. Between the song’s slow-building verses, its plaintive chorus cry of “I don’t believe in humans anymore!” and a couple of thrilling slide breaks from Beck, “Miss Hedy Lamarr” delivers the sort of emotional-musical payoff that’s too often absent from 18. As this song attests, Depp is actually at his best when his rock-star fantasies take on an over-the-top, absurd quality that comes out the other end sounding like genuine heartfelt commitment to the role he’s so ambitiously stepping into – a Captain Jack Sparrow-does-Harry Nilsson vibe that’s weirdly endearing. Next time these two guys get together, maybe they should lean a little more into that side of his skill set. Depp Schmepp might make some news too.