In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines a song that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Aerosmith’s Nine Lives, which went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 around its release in March of 1997.

Natural law says that any great band in motion will either break up or stop being great, and for “The Toxic Twins” of Aerosmith, circumstances frequently pointed to the latter fate. You’ve heard about the band’s famous act-one meltdown: the heroin- and booze-fueled high jinks, backstage altercations (curses—and glasses of milk—were flung), and misadventures with firearms in an abandoned convent. But less glamorized is the band’s mid-’90s crisis, after the magic comeback potion had begun to run its course.

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By 1995, shortly after the mega-tour for Get A Grip wrapped, Aerosmith was teetering again on the brink of a break-up. Exhaustion had set in. Drummer Joey Kramer suffered a nervous breakdown. Steven Tyler’s frequent temper tantrums hindered the creative process. A stint in South Beach to write material for the band’s 12th album turned sour when gossip rags claimed the singer was cheating on his wife. The pressure was on: Aerosmith had inked a massive $30 million record contract with Columbia/Sony in 1991 but couldn’t begin to fulfill it until completing their pre-established Geffen deal in the mid-1990s. For months, progress on the follow-up to 1993’s inconsistent if stupidly successful Get A Grip—which had already sold 7 million copies and generated seemingly as many prom-ready power ballads—went nowhere.

Worse still, the band’s relationship with manager Tim Collins, who had masterminded Aerosmith’s 1980s rise from drug-addled has-beens to MTV darlings, was taking a pernicious turn. In his 2014 autobiography Rocks, guitarist Joe Perry recounts Collins’ “method of dividing and conquering.” The manager would obsessively control the band’s every move and manipulate its members’ personal relationships in a malicious bid for power. Perry claims he sent spies to Tyler’s 12-step meetings and accused the frontman of relapsing. The band finally axed Collins in 1996—and out of this ugly mayhem emerged Nine Lives, the last great Aerosmith album (probably ever).

But back to that natural law for a moment. For every great act that fades away rather than burns out, there’s usually a last gasp of greatness signifying an end to the band’s formidable reign. This isn’t to say that the band in question’s subsequent releases contain no artistic worth—just that they are markedly and undeniably less than great, products of a decline rather than a peak. The Rolling Stones had Tattoo You; for U2, that sea change came in the form of 2000’s reflective, warmly familiar All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Pink Floyd’s last great record is tougher to nail down, but the dour war-dance that is Roger Waters’ Final Cut seems the best bet.

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Then there’s Aerosmith. Had the Boston group’s unprecedented comeback never come to pass, the stoner-groove rattle of 1977’s Draw The Line would be the likely response, Night In The Ruts if you’re feeling generous. But the story didn’t end there, and only the crustiest Aerosmith purist would deny the delights of twin ’80s smashes Permanent Vacation and Pump. Less defensible is Get A Grip, a ready-made hit maker whose smash singles don’t measure up to “Rag Doll” or “Janie’s Got A Gun” and whose album cuts run the gamut from forgettable (“Walk On Down”) to embarrassing (“Flesh”). The real last burst of Aerosmith greatness is Nine Lives, which throws some surprises at the usual cocky-rocker/weepy-ballad formula.

Like Get A Grip, Nine Lives sports an animal theme for its album art—cats. Like Get A Grip as well, the original cover sparked some controversy: Hindus were understandably offended by the image of the deity Krishna with a sleazy cat head. But Nine Lives’ feline focus has some greater thematic relevance. The record “should have been called Nine Hundred Lives,” Perry muses in his book, “because that’s how many lives I felt we had lived to its completion.” The band had originally snagged pop wizard Glen Ballard, fresh off his big break producing Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, to produce. But Ballard’s meticulous multi-tracking techniques confounded both Aerosmith and label executives alike. (One of “the suits” reportedly responded to a listening party with: “I don’t hear the band.”) So the band nixed the recordings and started over again with South African producer Kevin Shirley, whose rawer rock sensibilities are reflected in his nickname: The Caveman.

Thanks to The Caveman’s help, Nine Lives holds some of Aerosmith’s meanest rockers this side of Draw The Line. The first sound on the record is the wail of Perry’s guitar, a cacophony of cat wails, and then Tyler’s scream as the title track roars into gear. Better still are “Crash,” Aerosmith’s reckless, careening stab at straight punk, and “Something’s Gotta Give,” with a let-it-all-out gut punch of a chorus that brought us the title of Steven Tyler’s memoir.

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Of course, there are ballads. “Hole In My Soul” is the one most people will probably recognize, and the only credit professional song doctor Desmond Child (see: “Angel,” “Crazy”) receives on Nine Lives. It’s okay, albeit not very subtle in its mining of the “Dream On” riff. (Admittedly, if any singer can deliver the couplet “I know there’s been all kinds of shoes underneath your bed / Now I sleep with my boots on, but you’re still in my head” with a straight face, it’s Steven Tyler.) The best ballad on Nine Lives is “Full Circle,” a track that was eventually released as a single but—surprisingly—doesn’t really follow the template of a post-“Angel” power ballad at all, trading lovesick pleading for more cosmic lyrical concerns and a rousing singalong in its last few minutes.

But ballads don’t weigh the album down like they did Get A Grip, and the best thing about Nine Lives may well be how confidently it departs from the generic rocker/ballad binary altogether. First single “Falling in Love (Is Hard On The Knees)” is an infectious bit of horn-driven guitar pop that fits into neither category. The third single, “Pink,” made a bigger splash and signifies co-writer Ballard’s most lasting contribution to the album he was meant to produce. It’s an irresistibly chirpy cut, and its lyrical innuendo puts an amusing spin on its bubblegum appeal. Also worth a mention is the singularly excellent “Ain’t That A Bitch,” which trades on elegant string flourishes and some peak Steven Tyler gibberish for an end-of-track breakdown that’s not quite like anything else in the Aerosmith catalog.

If Nine Lives seems somewhat neglected in the grand sweep of Aerosmith history, that’s because it awkwardly straddles the second and third major phases of the band’s career. It’s not quite a part of the triumphant comeback era, having generated substantially poorer sales and fewer hits than the Permanent/Pump/Grip trilogy. But it is too good to fit into Aerosmith’s 21st century identity crisis period, during which time the band paraded around ’N Sync and Britney Spears during the Super Bowl halftime show, then veered wildly between a frightfully overproduced pop record (2001’s Just Push Play) and a seemingly desperate attempt at reclaiming blues credibility (2004’s Honkin’ On Bobo) only to disappear for eight years. Plus, among mass audiences, Nine Lives was overshadowed by 1998’s power ballad to end all power ballads, “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.” (The song probably would have upped Nine Lives’ sales had it been included, but it wouldn’t have made it a better record.)

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The story of Aerosmith during this time is the story of a search for equilibrium. In Rocks, Perry depicts himself as representing the rock side of the band while Tyler pushes for a more pop direction. Honkin’ On Bobo clearly appeased the former camp, but it lacked original songwriting. “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” and most of Just Push Play explored the band’s pop sensibilities—and were too sappy for self-respecting Aerosmith fans to bear. Nine Lives, strangely, is the only piece of the post-Pump puzzle that successfully melded both halves of the band’s character, and that made for Aerosmith’s last gasp of greatness.