Best Song Ever: “When I’m with You” and “More Than Words Can Say”

My entire high school career, from fall 1987 to spring 1991, aligned perfectly with the Golden Age of the Power Ballad. It was a strange point in pop music – the decade’s burst of new wave was fading just as my middle school years did, while the rise of grunge wouldn’t occur until I landed in college. There, squarely in the middle, were four full years of hair metal and its glorious, down-tempo offshoot.

Sheriff

Of course, some of you will argue the power ballad arrived years earlier, thanks to Journey, Styx, and REO Speedwagon, and you’d be right. But the genre wouldn’t hit its peak until it was taken over by the likes of Poison, Europe, Winger, and any other band with [insert Aqua Net punchline here]. The joke at the time was that every hair metal band supported a new album via two singles, like clockwork: a hard rock tune for the guys, followed by a slow number for the ladies, the latter always translating into greater chart success. The gender politics of pop music aside, this formula helped turn the power ballad into what was arguably the sound of the era.

(Or maybe it just seems that way to me. After all, it was the soundtrack to every school dance I attended. To this day, Cinderella’s “Don’t Know What You Got,” Winger’s “Heaven,” and Tesla’s “Love Song” are accompanied in my brain by a solitary mental image: badly dressed white kids swaying in pairs in an underlit gymnasium.)

How perfectly matched was the era and the genre? Consider the tale of Sheriff’s “When I’m with You.” The song was a hit in the band’s native Canada but failed to crack the American Top 40 upon its initial release in 1983. It would’ve remained just another soft rock leftover had DJs across the States not rediscovered it five years later, suddenly taken in by its now-timely mix of guitars, keyboards, and vocal acrobatics – not to mention a killer earworm of a chorus. How could this not be a smash at the dawn of the George H.W. Bush years?

While hindsight reveals it to sound more like 1983 than 1988 in its performance (it’s a little slower, a little gentler than its late-decade counterparts), most teens (myself included) never knew at the time it was a reject from their grade school days. The damn thing was an inescapable blockbuster, topping the charts in January 1989, the right song at the right time, plus change.

Alias

Funny thing about that five year delay, though, as Sheriff had broken up years earlier. Worse, half the band didn’t feel like reuniting to capitalize on their unexpected success. This led frontman Freddy Curci and guitarist Steve DeMarchi to grab a few guys from Heart and create a supergroup of sorts under the name Alias. Their job was simple: do the same thing all over again.

And so, in the summer of 1990, we got “More Than Words Can Say,” a song that’s almost dead-on identical to “When I’m with You,” from the keyboard intro to the quick build to a catchy chorus to the looooooooong final note. The only upgrade was a guitar solo, because, hey, it was 1990.

For all its copycat qualities, “More Than Words Can Say” is also a pretty damn great song, both in its own right and as a companion piece to its predecessor. There are times I prefer the quieter nature of Sheriff’s original, but for the most part, I think I prefer Alias’ follow-up. But really, both tunes hold up as terrific examples of slick, fun power pop. And that’s not just the nostalgia talking.

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