Welcome to Wherever You Are (Atlantic Records)

By Bob Bahr

INXS steps into the void with Welcome to Wherever You Are, an explorative piece of work that completely refutes the homogenity of past INXS albums. In fact, this recording seems to document a tremendous identity crisis for the Australian pop sextet.

INXS is style shopping with Welcome. It sprawls all over rock territory, picking up world-beat elements, some orchestral texture, and obfuscating studio effects. During the course of this upheaval, Michael Hutchence's vocals take a back seat, while the drummer and his beat-box dance rhythms move to the front. The sax player gets off the band bus almost completely, contributing most noticeably on "Taste It," a likeable bounce of a song in which the vocals and sax ricochet off guitar chords like a pinball ball in play.

Welcome shares some similarities with U2's "Achtung, Baby," with its moody shift of the superstar spotlight from the personalities of the band to the music currently being created. In the past, the trademark INXS guitar sound would carry a song, or the inimitable coo and cockiness of Hutchence would fill center stage, or perhaps the sax player would interject some high-profile soul on top of the dance beat. INXS also used to be notable for clean sound and sharp definition. With Welcome's ragged complications and ensemble spirit, INXS tears all this down and presents something different.

Actually, several different things are presented, and that's why this album is troubled. The "new INXS" is clearly not yet defined, not finished. The band has found some neat ways of creating pop music; snippets of this album would be dynamite for a film soundtrack. The naked piano melody on "Beautiful Girl," the choir-like chorus of "Baby Don't Cry," the funky slink of "Wishing Well" — they all are pleasing ear candy. But over the course of the album — hell, just in the time it takes to wrap up the individual songs — the impact fades to boredom.

The extremely stupid lyrics have a lot to do with this internal buckling. On a dance floor, this may not be apparent. In a living room, it is a glaring problem. "I won't leave this dirty place/I'll stay here 'til the end/The lights are on/So action man/Show us the truth," Hutchence sings in a Bono-like whisper in "Communication," an otherwise irresistible song. It doesn't get any better than that, either.

Welcome to Wherever You Are provokes sympathetic discomfort for INXS's growing pains. After running breathlessly for 40 minutes in search of a new direction, the album finally winds down with "Men and Women," a tone poem on betrayal that is reliant on sparse, sustained guitar chords and dramatic orchestration. Like the rest of this jumble, it's slightly intriguing and wholly forgettable.