Brian Setzer released his first solo record in 1986, called ‘The Knife Feels Like Justice’, and it’s clear from the sound of the record that Setzer was wanting to expand beyond the tried and true rockabilly sound of the Stray Cats recordings he’d been a part of up to that point. This record, though still carrying a bit of the rockabilly influence that had put the Stray Cats on the map, has traces of what the more conventional ’80s stadium rock sound was at the time. This record sits alongside Bruce Springsteen records of this time period quite nicely. It’s also nice to hear Setzer sound so free and released on this record.
The opening track on the record is the title track and it sets in place the musical shift from Stray Cat Setzer to solo Setzer pretty well. This track is more traditionally anthemic than anything that the Stray Cats had released up to that point. The moments on this record where Setzer lets himself do more things within the conventional rock format of the time tend to be the moments where the record shines the brightest, because Setzer handles the format with elegance and is able to put his own unique twist on it. He doesn’t completely shed his rockabilly blood though, as evidenced in tracks like “Radiation Ranch”, which he cleverly places in-between the more anthemic pieces, and it’s clear that he still has the chops to play on that level. Rockabilly is his bread and butter; it’s in his blood. However, it’s no question that this record is at its best when Setzer is given the green light to let out the anthems. Songs like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, “Aztec”, “Chains Around Your Heart”, and “Maria” show that Setzer was fully capable of performing on the stage with the giants of ’80s rock and, more importantly, was able to create these kinds of songs without them sounding contrived or pre-packaged. Many have argued that this record shows Setzer sacrificing his integrity as an artist for a quick buck. Rest assured, this is absolutely not true. This record has a fresh scent to it, feeling as if Setzer was able to create a record just for himself without having the expectations that came with being part of the Stray Cats lingering over his shoulder.
Brian Setzer accomplished something real with this record. It’s an inevitability; at some point the star frontman for a popular band will probably go off and do a solo record, but the big question is always whether or not it will succeed. Setzer succeeds big time here. It’s always a treat when a debut solo record is a success, because it means that the artist responsible will be able to create more records under their own name. It’s often fun for them to create records under their own name, because it can free them from the responsibilities that are forced upon them by being in whatever band they happen to play in. This record will go down as a landmark release for Setzer for this very reason and, in its own unique way, it stands alongside the best Stray Cat releases in terms of overall quality.