By 1988, Ted Nugent's pretense to any sort of aesthetic was dead. His career was becoming less about his music and more about his growing media personality centered around his "radical" conservative views; the Nugent of the late '70's whose only mission in life was the acquisition and enjoyment of "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang" and variations on "Stormtroopin'" was nearly lost to twice told tales and bittersweet arena rock memories. The man was being forced to live the legend, and like any addict, Nugent's need for sex formed the basis for a parade of justifications resulting in one of the most tired-sounding albums in history. The conquests were becoming empty, the riffs becoming rote. "If You Can't Lick 'Em...Lick 'Em" illustrates that decline in shades of boredom and self cannibalization, signaling an artistic nadir for the Nuge as well as the danger of complacent stagnancy. Everything about this record is a contrivance, from the gratuitous pro-cunningulus cover art to the insipid lyrics peppered throughout. If it's a mission statement, it's abhorrently puerile; if it's a rock and roll love letter to rebellion, it's willfully ignorant.
From the outset, the album lacks any sense of urgency. The Nuge's usual feeling of rampant, unbridled intensity is lost; the evocation of youthful willfulness he'd been known for across his entire career here evaporates under the weight of feigned ambition and dreams of the Billboard Top Ten. It's easy to see why Nugent set his sights so low: the highest charting rock albums of the year belonged to Def Leppard, Guns N' Roses, and Van Halen. Little wonder Nugent tempered his approach to a more competitive level; while nowhere near the electronic bid for relevance ZZ Top would institute (to financially gratifying effect), the "Motor City Madman" obviously attempted to simplify his approach and filter it through a wash of contemporary preferences. One can either view that decision as prescience on the part of a veteran or bland catering to popular concession. The usual preoccupations were still present; here they were just watered down and sent out to mainstream America for its consumer consideration.
Opening track "Can't Live With 'Em" is full-on Accept derivation, laying out the Nuge's eternal misogyny on top of a riff that vomits up "Cat Scratch Fever" by way of Judas Priest. Nugent both requires and loathes women; while before Nugent transformed this appropriation of outdated gender modes into rock and roll revelation, here it becomes another whiney lament from some asshole who isn't getting laid as often as his dick gets hard. The album is rife with these sorts of ruminations: "The Harder They Come (The Harder I Get)," "Separate the Men From the Boys, Please" and the sixth grade level observation "Skintight" all dwell on the not-so-subtle desires of their protagonist's quest for gash and his inevitable sociological ascendancy. Nugent spells it out early into "Funlover", telling us "Explicit sex, it ain't my cup of tea/Unless of course it's happening to me." The selfishness and narcissism inherent in Nugent's lyricism here expand themselves to near Brobdignagian levels; lust is its own validation, the accompanying journey to satisfaction nothing less than a right and a rite.
Musically the album is close to pure embarrassment. Nugent recycles riff after riff, turning in an exhausted batch of songs that feel mechanical and lifeless even as they attempt to depict a supposedly technicolor life of libido-fueled hedonism and wild abandon. The title track is a nothing less than blatant rewrite of Nugent's own "Stranglehold," from the opening fretwork to the screeching rockabilly fills and the overwrought psychedelic solo. "She Drives Me Crazy" comes off like a bad Alice Cooper imitation (another artist struggling with reinvention) complete with Nugent's stab at vocal histrionics, while "Spread Your Wings" recalls Hendrix's "Little Wing" right down to the quacking guitar tone (though it's hard to imagine Hendrix penning lyrics as woefully empty and sentimental as "Turn on your love life baby/Let it shine down on me tonight/Let's fly away, I mean it fly/You just spread your wings baby.") These sorts of metaphors had been well-exhausted by the time Nugent co-opted them; accordingly, they read like half-assed attempts at lowest common denominator poetry fused with high school grandiosity. "Separate the Men From The Boys, Please" rips off Journey's "Stone in Love" and turns it into a sub-prog exploration of tired "look at me" drumming alongside an overabundance pinch harmonics. Only the solo section of "Funlover" comes anywhere close to imaginative, with Ted whipping out a flurry of neoclassical harmonies that borrow liberally from Iron Maiden while giving Randy Rhoads a run for his money; the track's triple-tracked lead lines are the only real reminder of Nugent's utter mastery over the guitar and the classical rock form. Beyond that it's paint by numbers six-string heroism: fluid but pointless to the point of tedium.
Nugent was never a major force in establishing the 1980's rock framework; as such, his contributions (or lack thereof) to the form at the time still go widely unheralded in the great history of rock. It's important to remember that people like Nugent were attempting to remain viable in a rapidly overcrowding market. Young upstarts like Guns N' Roses, Warrant, and, to a lesser degree, Poison, were all cashing in on what Ted Nugent had worked so hard to personify for the last decade. His stage persona was Marc Bolan to the nth degree, reinterpreted by everyone from Axl Rose to Stephen Pearcy and David Lee Roth (perhaps the only real "contemporary" to Nugent the genre could offer.) Albums like "If You Can't Lick 'Em...Lick 'Em" serve only to steer us away from the hubris of gross egoism and self-infatuation. Beyond that it's lessons, if any, are mere punchlines. There's not a single memorable riff to be found here, only retreads and reappropriations. One can only wonder what Ted's diehard fans thought (though i've read some reviews citing this as one of his best late-period recordings); the sense of abandonment once heard so loudly in the music could only have been surpassed by the sense of abandonment now felt by the faithful. With "If You Can't Lick 'Em...Lick 'Em," Nugent effectively signed his own death warrant.