For Hotel California, the Eagles had a new guitarist - Joe Walsh, whose upbringing in northern New Jersey and whose early days in Cleveland as the frontman for the James Gang brought some bite to their music. He proved to be a perfect foil for lead guitarist Don Felder, producing a few epic guitar duels worthy of Stephen Stills and Neil Young in their Buffalo Springfield and CSNY days. Also, Don Henley and Glenn Frey were taking their lyrics more seriously as they saw the perfect lifestyle they'd come to LA for turn into endless excess and pursuit of self-indulgence for its own sake. The Eagles don't excuse themselves for their own excessive living, and they don't act like they're above everyone else - which may make this LP their most honest work.
Hotel California is full of various interpretations of how fleeting and empty the California dream can be, from the lack of permanence in "New Kid and Town" (written by Henley and Frey with J.D. Souther) to the loss of innocence in the unassuming power ballad "Pretty Maids All In a Row" (written by Walsh and studio musician Joe Vitale), both with sensitive vocals and guitar solos steeped in heavy blues. There's some nastiness, too, showing how the southern California experience had scarred the Eagles. "Victim of Love" is a lean, slashing rocker about betrayal that simmers with tension lacking in previous Eagles records, while "Life In the Fast Lane" tells the tale of coke-fiend lovers pushing their luck in a milieu of partying and pill-popping to the lightning-bolt riffs of Walsh's guitar and also Randy Meisner's tight bass - and Meisner's bass solo preceding the final verse is one of his finest moments ever. Meisner, who ironically would leave the Eagles after this album, provides some hope for escape with his spirited, country-tinged "Try and Love Again," a throwback to the early Eagles sound that also recalls his earlier stint in Poco.
It is in this variety of styles and excellent playing that the subtext of Hotel California emerges; the album is a warning that the California dream is becoming a nightmare, and as the phantoms of the opera, Henley and Frey can see a crash they hope can be averted. The regret in the gorgeously orchestrated ballad "Wasted Time" and the message of environmental and cultural decay in "The Last Resort," the somewhat ponderous closing cut (its clunky lyrics and slow tempo make it the weakest link in Hotel California's song cycle), offer moments of lucidity to draw wisdom from, but the opening title track, which imagines California as a swank hotel where the guests live life to the fullest, is probably the clearest expression of the parody of itself that LA living had become. It's a lifestyle that will always be a part of southern Californians long after they've abandoned it ("You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave"), and both the exotic riff that carries the song and the long guitar duet between Walsh and Felder at the end make that more obvious than the cryptic lyrics.
Hotel California was to the seventies what the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was to the sixties, a theme album capturing the spirit of the times. On Hotel California, the devolution of rock and roll from an expression of hope to an expression of selfishness was all too apparent, right down to Frey's and Henley's smug vocals throughout this record. That smugness merely reinforced the negative attitude many Americans in other regions of the country had toward the Los Angeles area and California in general, but the joke was on them. Because the Eagles weren't really singing about just southern California or all of California but the entire country. That is why the Eagles, once a band that critics loved to hate, have been redeemed by time and why Hotel California stills holds up so well after four decades. When America laughed at California in the seventies, it was laughing at itself . . . and its own future.