Setting Sons


Album: Setting Sons

Artist: The Jam

Released: November 16th, 1979

Highlights: Thick as Thieves, Wasteland, Burning Sky, The Eton Riffles

Like many other great bands, The Jam nailed the process of making a record right out of the gate, as their debut, “In the City”, is deservingly held in very high regard. However, it can be argued that the trio’s work in that first effort falls onto a bit of an odd middle-ground: it is by all means a fantastic and classic start, but one would not be criticized for saying the group had yet to find a voice at that point. The reason for that, of course, has to do with the timing of its release and the nature of its content: coming out in 1977, at the height of the punk fever and one month following The Clash’s debut, the album’s focus on punchy power-chord riffs and its touches of political thought meant that Paul Weller’s gang was too close to their peers for comfort. And because of that, although “In the City” certainly speaks volumes about the singer and guitarist’s knack for songwriting through its hooks, the record still runs the risk of being seen as a product that emulated the music of its time to a larger-than-desirable degree.

By the release of “Setting Sons”, however, the notion that The Jam could not break away from the crowd had been blown to pieces: not thanks their second album, “This Is the Modern World”, which had actually worked towards giving even more voice to their critics; but due to their third effort, “All Mod Cons”. In it, Weller emerged like a punk version of The Kinks’ Ray Davies; that is, someone who is able to make resounding points – in his case, political – via a nigh literary look at British characters and situations. To boot, he and his band had risen to the occasion and delivered a more nuanced musical package, because, sure, there was still plenty of punk rock in there: a better term does not exist to describe the iconic riff of “A Bomb in Wardour Street”. But, at the end of the day, the album opened itself to the influence of new wave and power pop, hinting at the future adventurous spirit that The Jam would display.

As the follow-up to that album, “Setting Sons” expands on that growth: if “All Mod Cons” was flexible, this forth chapter threatens to be eclectic. It is not a radical departure from the past: it does not flirt with post-punk and experimentation in the same way that its successor, “Sound Affects”, would do; and it certainly does not jump into funk and soul like The Jam’s farewell, “The Gift”. As such, when it is all said and done, punk prevails, guitars get the spotlight, and Weller is still rather angry at a number of different targets. But “Setting Sons” showcases a firmer grasp on the ideas that began being explored in “All Mod Cons”, to the point it is possible to say that if the band did indeed find their voice in their third record, in this one they polished it into its finest version.

Simply put, everything in “Setting Sons” shows a greater degree of maturity and inspiration. Paul Weller comes off as a man on a major songwriting streak: there is not a tune in the bunch that goes by without a hook that emits an iconic vibe; therefore, to unaware listeners, this is one of those albums where it is hard to tell what was a hit and what was not. Moreover, in lyrical matters, new topics have emerged while old ones have been enhanced. In the group of fresh subjects, “Thick as Thieves” and “Burning Sky” are tales about lost childhood friendships, but where the former paints the situation in a sad romantic light, the latter goes for a colder approach. Meanwhile, in the set of recurring ideas, there is “Smithers-Jones”, penned by bassist Bruce Foxton, which is an achievement in recreating the dullness of corporate life with beautiful music; and “The Eton Riffles”, which is likely The Jam’s most famous political statement: a brutal criticism of the British class system that looks at the privilege and nasty behavior of those who can afford to go to the country’s best schools.

That is not all, though, because the musical aspect of “Setting Sons” is also incredibly noteworthy. The instrumentation, arrangements, and production are much richer than before, and it is precisely through them that the album manages to surpass “All Mod Cons” in sheer flexibility. At times, the lushness is so considerable that listeners would be excused for thinking they are going through a British guitar pop album from the 1960s, written by forgotten contemporaries of The Who, The Kinks, and The Beatles. This is the type of sound The Jam was aiming for here, and although trying to stand beside those giants is no easy task, the band pulls it off – after all, they were in the process of becoming legends themselves. And the benefit of that strategy is astounding because no other punk band was going down that particular road, as those dinosaurs of the past were usually seen by the movement – at least publically – as figures to be avoided. As such, what The Jam cooks here is mostly original.

Yes, there are songs in “Setting Sons” that could have been present in “All Mod Cons” or even “In the City” without feeling like abrupt deviations: opener “Girl on the Phone” is an incredibly catchy slice of punk that flirts with light romantic pop; and “Saturday’s Kids” has pounding riffs, dirty guitars, and an ironic sing-along chorus. But everywhere else, the music is more dynamic. “Thick as Thieves” and “Wasteland” are the definition of anthemic: songs without choruses that keep building in sadness and melodic beauty to a cathartic release. “Private Hell” may concern personal matters, but it sounds like punk apocalypse. “Little Boy Soldiers” manages to be operatic in how it packs different movements in a little more than three minutes. “Burning Sky” is more straightforward, but it uses the looseness of the letter format of its lyrics to equally include numerous melodic shifts that form a punk epic. “Smithers-Jones” is an orchestrated piece of baroque pop that inevitably recalls “Eleanor Rigby”. And “The Eton Riffles” has The Jam employing the album’s instrumental fullness to assemble their heaviest song ever: an angry all-out guitar assault that also happens to be incredibly catchy.

“Setting Sons” is not perfect. Originally conceived as a concept album about a group of three friends who meet again as adults after a non-specified war, the record was not able to deliver on that promise due to a rushed recording schedule. As a consequence, only fragments of that idea survive, in tunes like “Thick as Thieves”, “Burning Sky”, and “Little Boy Soldiers”. But truth be told, that problem does not actually hurt the album, as it will go by unnoticed to those who are not aware of that background. What harms it are little irregularities that, in some cases, are a result of how it had to be put together more quickly than anticipated: “Girl on the Phone” is fantastic and “Saturday’s Kids” is decent, but they do not gel well with the other tracks; “Little Boy Soldiers” is a clever idea that does not quite stick the landing; and the inclusion of the fun cover of the soul classic “Heatwave” to close the record is, like the appearance of “Girl on the Phone” and “Saturday’s Kids”, a clear attempt to fill up space.

Yet, “Setting Sons” remains a wonderful achievement that marks a unique encounter between punk rock, new wave, and British guitar pop. And although the race for the title of The Jam’s best album is a hard one due to the consistency of the band’s short discography, their fourth release emerges as a worthy candidate: Paul Weller never wrote such an incredible batch of songs and the group never sounded as sure of their voice as they did here, especially because the trio would go on to disband without having enough time to fully polish the musical direction in which they would go after this album. Because of those qualities, “Setting Sons” should be an essential part of any punk rock, new wave, and guitar pop discography: it exists at the edge of those three sub-genres, and it masters them with class. There are not many other records that can make that claim.


Fear Of The Dawn


Album: Fear of the Dawn

Artist: Jack White

Released: April 8th, 2022

Highlights: Taking Me Back, Hi-De-Ho, Esophobia, That Was Then This Is Now

Be it as the creative leader of The White Stripes or in the first two records of his solo career, Jack White displayed clear reverence for the traditional genres that gave birth to rock, with blues usually coming off as his greatest source of inspiration. It is true that, in a stylistic sense, what Jack did alongside Meg was rather different from the work he put out on his own: with her, he banged out garage tunes that echoed the utmost simplicity of blues; whilst alone, his tone was more subdued, polished, and sometimes intimate. Nevertheless, in both cases, his music, though sprinkled with quirky flights, remained anchored on tradition and it is safe to say most of his fanbase would be thoroughly satisfied if Jack opted to build a lengthy career out of those flavors. But then 2018 came around and his third solo effort, “Boarding House Reach”, was unleashed upon the world, proving that Jack White is a pretty restless individual.

Obviously, one could already have made that deduction by looking at his numerous side-projects or reading between the lines of the last two The White Stripes albums, but “Boarding House Reach” made that reality more blatant than ever because it burst through the boundaries of the genres Jack tended to explore. In essence, it was a rock record, but that label only truly stuck occasionally, because Jack seemed far more concerned with stretching himself towards avant-garde territory via electronic layers, strange production touches, and a songwriting approach that skewed his usual tendency towards pop hooks. In a way, it seemed that sensing rock music was no longer mainstream, Jack concluded that the time was ripe for it to be pushed to odd places; after all, since only the aficionados are still tuning in, one might as well take them for a wilder ride.

Because of the drastic artistic break that “Boarding House Reach” represented, “Fear of the Dawn” arrives alongside some degree of doubt, as one naturally wonders if that album was just a brief strange detour or if White is entirely committed to cementing himself as the king of rock and roll weirdness. As it turns out, the answer lies somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, because even though “Fear of the Dawn” shows no interest in reuniting the singer-songwriter with what used to be his style of composition, it does bring the music back to a firmer garage-rock format. In other words, the songs in “Fear of the Dawn” are still positively weird and initially unwelcoming, but most – if not all – of them could be executed in their entirety by a band armed with nothing but guitars, bass, drums, and a microphone; something that did not apply to “Boarding House Reach”.

This partial reconnection with musical past is made evident by how numerous of the tunes here could conceivably be done by The White Stripes themselves. While all of Jack’s previous solo works had at least one or two tracks with such a characteristic, in “Fear of the Dawn” this feature applies to nearly the entire album, as the majority of the tracks expose a very simple recipe: pounding riffs, guitars that are played at distortion levels that bring them within an inch of utter destruction, performances that are utterly savage in their rawness, and unexpected instrumental left turns where Jack goes atomic as he allows himself to be overcome by primal instincts only channeled by those who are very much into what they are doing.

One could point out that such list of ingredients is not too different from what The White Stripes brought to the table, which could make “Fear of the Dawn” a retread, and that argument is absolutely correct. However, a couple of components contribute to making the album radically distinct from what came before it, and the first is songwriting. With his former beloved band, Jack – whether intentionally or not – wrote for the masses, letting loose plenty of pop hooks that made the duo’s inherent wildness and oddity more universally palatable. In “Fear of the Dawn”, as it was the case in “Boarding House Reach”, Jack is writing for the converted (or perhaps for himself), which makes the record a work that is not concerned with delivering melodic sugar, focusing instead on the freewheeling energy that exists within the utter abandon of garage rock. Here, Jack is not trying to charm anyone into listening; contrarily, he is actually daring his audience to keep watching as he goes completely ballistic.

The second element, and possibly the most important one, that adds character to “Fear of the Dawn” is the sheer breadth of the sounds Jack is able to extract out of his guitar. In fact, it is this particular facet that is responsible for building a stylistic link between “Fear of the Dawn” and its predecessor. It feels like even if he loved all strange noises contained in “Boarding House Reach”, Jack was somewhat miffed he reached for them without using his signature instrument; consequently, this time around he enacts revenge upon the world by causing the guitar to emit a variety of textures that the average musician would extract out keyboards, synthesizers, or other electronic devices. Because of that, it would be no exaggeration to claim “Fear of the Dawn” finds a way to break into new territory for the guitar right in the middle of an era where there are rumors the once world-dominating instrument is done for good.

Given there is a prevalence of garage rock tunes that bring The White Stripes to mind, it goes without saying that the weird sounds of Jack’s guitar are mostly used in that context, creating – therefore – nastier and experimental takes on that music, which wisely employ that artistic freedom to boast rarely witnessed song structures and a good amount of instrumental freak-outs. However, in another detail that ties it to “Boarding House Reach”, “Fear of the Dawn” displays some eclecticism, opening the way for moments when the guitar is deployed to create hip-hop grooves, little flourishes that recall electronic beats, and other touches that sometimes are used in standalone songs but that occasionally also add unique flavor to cuts grounded on garage rock.

Because of its frantic experimental soul and the shunning of traditional hooks, “Fear of the Dawn” can get a bit lost on its carefree spirit, and during moments like those a few tracks can land on the ears like they are heavy, loud, and weird just for the sake of being so, exhibiting therefore a lack of purpose. Nevertheless, the thrill of listening to it will remain intact through most of the way to those who have love for noisy guitar-playing. And besides being the heaviest album Jack has ever put out, be it alone or as part of a band, it is also – up to its release – the most genuinely interesting record of his solo adventure, as it balances his newly found wish to take rock music to new grounds with what he does best as an instrumentalist: extracting a tuneful and refreshing racket out of electric guitars.


Pressure Machine


Album: Pressure Machine

Artist: The Killers

Released: August 13th, 2021

Highlights: West Hills, Quiet Town, Runaway Horses, In the Car Outside

For better and for worse, The Killers had never been able to shake off the bombastic sound that was so pivotal in propelling them to the eyes of the public in 2004 with “Hot Fuss”. On one hand, that characteristic played right into the hands of Brandon Flowers’ songwriting, which – with a knack for explosive choruses – was sure to keep on delivering at least two major hits per album. On the other hand, however, the fact The Killers seemingly only knew how to operate in full throttle meant that, outside a very dedicated fanbase, questions remained as to whether the band was anything more than a one-trick pony that was destined to be a classic case of a group that releases one debut of stunning quality only to then enter a brutal process of artistic stagnation with ever diminishing returns.

Rightfully, a follower of the band’s trajectory can argue that with the warmly received “Wonderful Wonderful”, their fifth release, Brandon and company were able to tone down the explosions that by then had become predictable to fall on tamer soundscapes made up of keyboards, synths, and guitar effects. But the truth is that, even with that record, The Killers could not get away from their natural lean towards grandiosity; they had merely swapped the cinematic heartland rock of Bruce Springsteen during the “Born to Run” and “Born in the U.S.A.” days for the equally bombastic arena-rock-for-the-masses frequently weaved by U2. In other words, they had simply exchanged one type of grandeur for another.

With their seventh album, though, it seems change has finally truly come for the band from Nevada; and, as it turns out, they end up gaining a lot from it. Although Brandon Flowers, like his bandmates, spent a good portion of his life in Las Vegas, an important part of his childhood unfolded in the state of Utah, within the small towns of Payson and Nephi. And it is the last one in particular (whose population sits at around 6,000 inhabitants) that he uses as a source of inspiration for “Pressure Machine”, in which he holds a magnifying glass to the elements that surround the people who live in such a small community at the deep heart of the United States and turns those individual pieces into serious, thoughtful, and subdued – especially for The Killers’ standards – tracks that come together to paint a larger and very vivid picture.

Since the moment Brandon Flowers burst into the scene as a songwriter, comparisons between his work and that of Bruce Springsteen have been common, and understandably so. After all, here were two artists that used bombastic heartland rock to turn the mundane struggles of average American characters – be them workers or anxious teenagers – into heroic tales. As such, when Brandon, with “Pressure Machine”, suddenly steps on the break to coin more intimate pieces about folks who have fallen through the cracks of the American Dream, it is only natural for one to be reminded of Springsteen’s “Nebraska”, the dark, lo-fi, acoustic, and masterful 1982 release by Bruce. But, ultimately, “Pressure Machine” is not so daring: even though amateur-sounding recorded interviews with some inhabitants of Nephi precede nearly all the tracks, lending them a very real context, this is a finely produced album that – appropriately – sounds like it came from an important band and a major label.

Needless to say, the fact “Pressure Machine” lacks the sonic audacity of “Nebraska” does not detract from its worth. More importantly, this aesthetic disparity does not even make the comparison absurd, because what The Killers achieve here is by all means similar: like “Nebraska”, “Pressure Machine” is a realistic glimpse, frequently narrated in first-person, into the vast United States that exists away from the country’s worldwide-known and highly influential urban centers. Wearing the shoes of various characters, occasionally within the same song, Brandon touches on topics, people, and events that he, from personal experience, knows to be a part of a small and isolated community such as Nephi. There is the knowledge, sometimes sadly resigned and sometimes satisfied, that most people will never leave the town; there is the strong faith and the equally powerful pressure generated by religion; there is the beauty of living in the midst of natural splendor; there is the kid who causes trouble around the place; there is the young man who is driven to suicidal thoughts due to how his homosexuality is not accepted; there is addiction to opioids; there is the yearly rodeo; there are crimes and stories whose tales spread; and more.

Immersed in this mixture of light and darkness, musically, what makes “Pressure Machine” so special is that although the brand of heartland rock present here is quieter, the fingerprints of The Killers are still all over the tunes; that is, in this work, the band nails the elusive artistic achievement of changing one’s sound without abandoning the signature characteristics of one’s music. Yes, almost half of the songs on the album (“Terrible Thing”, “Runaway Horses”, “Desperate Things”, “Pressure Machine”, and “The Getting By”) are intimate guitar-and-voice cuts punctually embellished by harmonies or strings; and all of those are the types of tracks The Killers of old would never have gone for. Consequently, save for the voice of Brandon Flowers and a couple of melodic peculiarities, there is not much in them that can be connected to the group’s previous material. These folk moments are, however, nicely counterbalanced by a set of more muscular songs; and in these, some of the band’s bombast comes through.

Opener “West Hills” is cinematic from the start, encompassing characters as well as scenes that exist in Nephi and in the natural expanse that surrounds it, but it cooks quietly for more than two minutes before unleashing strings and guitars on the repetition of a chorus that gets progressively grander. “Quiet Town” is a straightforward mid-tempo rocker that could have come from Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town. “Cody” is tasteful country rock with a sweeping chorus. “Sleepwalker” and “In the Car Outside” follow a structure mastered by The Killers in many of their hits: pulsating verses led by keyboards that are catapulted to explosive choruses, the former supported by a more electronic arrangement and the latter by gorgeous ringing guitars. And “In Another Life” is every bit as anthemic as “When You Were Young”.

Accompanied by a strong set of calmer tracks and at times being themselves formed by a few segments of a more subdued nature, the climatic moments of these bombastic tunes have room to breathe, taking advantage of wider dynamics to be more effective than ever. And the fact “Pressure Machine” is filled with the most remarkable group of melodies Brandon Flowers has created since “Hot Fuss” certainly also helps in that regard. When those two qualities are considered alongside the thematic marvel displayed within the album, the result is that The Killers have pulled off a musical rarity: with their seventh work, they have not only broken a trend of artistic staleness that had been going on for a while, but they have also reached a career-high when their best days seemed to be far behind them. And best of all, they did so without completely abandoning the bombast that has always defined their music.


Court And Spark


Album: Court and Spark

Artist: Joni Mitchell

Released: January 17th, 1974

Highlights: Help Me, Free Man in Paris, Car on a Hill, Raised on Robbery

To a point, Joni Mitchell was a clear representative of the hippie dream of the 1960s. Starting her career towards the tail end of that decade, the Canadian singer-songwriter crafted her music in the folk tradition that was such an integral part of that movement. It is true that Joni was rarely a political creature, therefore shying away from writing the kind of material that would lead her genre contemporary Bob Dylan to, much to his horror, be seen as the voice of that generation. Yet, through her demeanor, through her fashion sense, through the imagery evoked by her gentle compositions, and through the randomness of timing, Mitchell’s early folk work is certainly a staple of those pivotal and culturally active years.

At the same time, though, it was easy to see her talent was way too big to be contained solely within that scope. She may have written “Woodstock”, the timeless anthem that will forever stand as an immaculate depiction of the legendary festival and its attendees, but besides famously not singing at the event, the tune is narrated by an outsider that is looking in, as if Joni herself were aware she was not entirely a part of the hippie scene. And anyone who listened carefully to her folk ballads was bound to agree, because her usage of unconventional tunings, the free-flowing nature of her melodies, the vivid scenes she painted with her lyrics, the conversational tones adopted by her characters, and the subject matter of her songs did not belong to the counterculture of the 1960s; they were very much her own.

All of that is to say that Joni Mitchell was never one to adhere to conventions. One may try to label her young self as a hippie folk singer, but doing so is overlooking the depth of what she was pulling off. Not surprisingly, then, given the nature of her artistry, a similar reasoning applies to her 1974 release, “Court and Spark”. Word on the street has it that Joni’s sixth studio work is also her most mainstream one, and there is surely data to back that up: the record received a double platinum certification and is her best-selling work; furthermore, its second single, “Help Me”, was the highest-charting song of a career that spanned four decades. Any observer, consequently, would be tempted to view the album as a direct shot at the commercial tendencies of the time.

Such an evaluation would not be completely wrong. Before “Court and Spark”, Mitchell had already occasionally abandoned the quirky inflections she threw into her folk to pen memorable tracks of blatant accessibility, like “Big Yellow Taxi”, “The Circle Game”, “Both Sides Now”, and “Woodstock”. But “Court and Spark” tips the scale into that direction more heavily than ever, because rather than making a concession to a wide audience in one or two scattershot tunes, it opts to open the floodgates: out of its eleven tracks, four are so immediately catchy that they ought to be featured in any list ranking Joni’s ten most popular songs. Yet, there is much more to “Court and Spark” than the inescapable hooks of “Help Me”, “Free Man in Paris”, “Car on a Hill”, and “Raised on Robbery”.

After five albums of elegant and sophisticated folk, “Court and Spark” sees Mitchell starting to open herself up to the genre that would define the later half of her career: jazz. As it happens with early flirts, though, what emerges out of “Court and Spark” is a shy touch. The wild experimentation of “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”, the epic scale of “Hejira”, and the total dive into jazz seen in “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” are still on the horizon. “Court and Spark”, instead, is a pop album whose acoustic heart is gently decorated with jazz instrumentation, which is a description that should suffice to explain its success.

However, as it is usually the case with Joni Mitchell, there is a catch. At its most accessible, “Court and Spark” is rich, layered, warm, and catchy. Its meticulously crafted pop sits on a soothing web that recalls the California sound pioneered by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, making it nothing but appropriate that Mitchell’s life in Los Angeles clearly influences many of the record’s lyrics. But an attentive listener will realize the catchiness of “Court and Spark” is not a given; in fact, it is sort of miraculous. Its tunes, especially those on the album’s first half, are so brief that the whole work threatens to come off as a uniform suite rather than a record of straightforward pop; and the unconventional structures of the tracks themselves further enhances that notion, subtly implying that it is not only the instrumentation of jazz that Joni is bringing to the table: she is also taking advantage of the genre’s spontaneous soul.

Examples of that wild aura abound. “Help Me” may have been a major hit, but it lacks a chorus completely, leaving its main hook to come out of the titular exclamation that opens its three of its four verses. The title track, contrarily, does have a chorus of exquisite quality, but it only shows up once, splitting the four verses that constitute it right in the middle. “People’s Parties” and “Same Situation”, the former acoustic and the latter piano-centered, feel like two parts of a mini-opera, serving as prime examples of Joni’s ability to slowly build free-flowing and almost conversational melodies to peaks of emotional grandeur. “Down to You” is equally operatic, embracing – in its five minutes – multiple passages, including an orchestrated break. “Just Like This Train” may have a more traditional structure, but there is nothing orthodox about its melody, and its jazzy sound proves to be a perfect company to the more playful side of Joni’s songwriting. And like “Help Me”, “Trouble Child” is rather sneaky in hiding its hook, saving it to the end of its two final verses.

As such, it is a mistake to look at “Court and Spark” like the usual moment when a major idiosyncratic artist makes concessions in their work in order to get a taste of commercial glory. The truth is that despite its chart performance, there is little about it that is typical: from Joni’s decision to stick a riveting rock and roll song (“Raised on Robbery”) and a wacky tongue-in-cheek jazz cover (“Twisted”) in the record’s track list to the fact the album documents the early stages of her experimentation with jazz. “Court and Spark” is not one of those works that is naturally successful because of what it contains; it is actually miraculously successful in spite of what it contains. And what it has is the work of a musical genius, one that while concocting her own version of the California sound finds the time to write four hits without ever abandoning her sophisticated and unique songwriting gift. “Court and Spark” proves that playing around with jazz was perfect for Joni Mitchell, and although the road ahead had one higher peak to offer, if “Court and Spark” had been all that had come out of the journey, it would have already made it worth it.


Never For Ever


Album: Never for Ever

Artist: Kate Bush

Released: September 8th, 1980

Highlights: Babooshka, Delius, Army Dreamers, Breathing

Although not yet twenty when she sat down to put together her debut, Kate Bush was confident enough in her artistic vision to make sure that those around her – be them record engineers or executives in suits – became aware that she would fight to take ownership of her career. It is not that she did not appreciate the helping hands of the people who, amazed by her talent, played a key role in getting her a contract as well as in shaping her initial recordings, a cast of major rock figures that included Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. It is just that Kate knew that her ideas were so personal and unique that she would have to not only overcome a high degree of resistance, but also take control of the whole creative process in order to make her idealized musical concepts materialize as accurately as possible.

Case in point, when the initial single of her first album was being prepared, the record company pushed for the good yet standard-sounding “James and the Cold Gun” to be picked; Bush, however, famously stood her ground and made a case for the selection of the more ambitious “Wuthering Heights” instead, a daring choice that paid off when the song climbed to the top of the charts, stayed there for four weeks, and went on to become a pop classic. Despite the evident proof of her artistic tact, complete control over her work would take a bit longer to come. Kate’s debut, “The Kick Inside” was naturally not produced by her. Meanwhile, due to pressure from the label, which wanted to ride on the existing wave of success, the follow-up (“Lionheart) would be made too quickly. As such, the singer was not given enough time to develop fresh ideas, having to use older tunes and recycle the sound of “The Kick Inside”.

But then came “Never for Ever”. Released two years after “Lionheart”, it marks the moment when Kate Bush takes over, therefore emerging like the turning point that would down the line enable the creation of historical out-of-the-box classics like “The Dreaming” and “Hounds of Love”. Besides writing the tunes and performing them, Bush also produces the album alongside Jon Kelly; creates most of the arrangements; and plays, in addition to her usual piano, a horde of different synthesizers. These are all considerable shifts, but more important than what is written on the record’s credits is how it sounds like, and the change is absolutely notable.

“The Kick Inside” and “Lionheart” were tastefully produced. Yet, despite Kate’s eccentricity, which channels her pop songwriting into artistic performances, these records ultimately sounded like pop albums from the 1970s. It is a characteristic that makes them be true to when they were made; at the same time, though, such trait threatens to turn Kate Bush into just another run-of-the-mill pop act. “Never for Ever”, on the other hand, runs no such risk. Sure, to a contemporary listener there are a few synthesizer textures and vocal arrangements that will seem dated, but “Never for Ever” sounds thoroughly unique as it hops from genre to genre or pulls them together to form weird little babies. Here, Kate drinks from classical music, progressive pop, and rock to land on a fabric that is much truer to her essence, consequently highlighting the theatrical aspects of her music, which manages to be simultaneously appropriate for a stage, a cabaret, and a chamber.

Naturally, the production cannot be solely credited for the artistic leap of “Never for Ever”, as in many instances it is the nature of the compositions themselves that ends up calling for a different treatment. Nowhere in her first two albums had Kate written anything as sparse as “Delius”, as operatic as “The Infant Kiss”, and as filled with movements as “Breathing”. Because of that, the first is so ethereal that it seems to anticipate the dream pop of the Cocteau Twins, with nearly indecipherable vocal inflections included, by at least one year, and that description is also quite suitable for “Blow Away”, the next track in the album’s sequence; meanwhile, the second starts like a piano ballad before quickly revealing it is actually a dramatic orchestrated piece that might as well have been extracted from the key emotional scene of a musical; and the third is a series of beautifully disjointed passages which slowly rise to catharsis connected by the same overall melody, hence coming off as mini-suite.

Interestingly, in many instances the unusual constructions presented by the songs are a reflection of the equally unique themes Kate brings to the table, meaning that they work like musical representations of the lyrics. “Egypt” boasts a dream-like aura and is backed by a guitar soloing notes that immediately recall the country; yet, it features a haunting chaotic coda that nods to the conflicts and poverty present in a nation that is idealized as a touristic destination by many. “The Wedding List”, inspired by the movie “The Bride Wore Black”, has a woman going on a killing rampage as she searches for the five men who killed the groom on the day they were to be married, and as the driving verses depict her vengeful intents, the foggy choruses show how the press and public perceive her quest. “Army Dreamers” is brilliantly arranged and sung like a lullaby, but its marching waltz progression underscores the suffering of a mother who lost her young son when he was called upon to fight a war. And the junction of beauty and horror that the alternating passages of “Breathing” have serves to speak of a baby that will be born into a world poisoned with nuclear fallout.

Most of the eleven songs that make up the album follow this pattern of structural flexibility, which is greatly responsible for giving “Never for Ever” the progressive soul that best defines, but in the midst of this complexity, Kate also opens up a bit of space for more direct tunes. Despite the pronounced fretless bass that gives its piano-led verses a jazz undertone, “Babooshka” is pure pop glory straight from the 1980s, with an energetic performance by Kate’s band and well-placed synthesizers adorning it nicely. “All We Ever Look For” may have kooky instrumentation (including whistling) and a weird break with sound effects, but it is a controlled slice of psychedelia. Finally, “Violin”, which is best described as a fast-paced rock tune accompanied by the titular instrument, shows that the singer – who was admired by none other than John Lydon himself – was perhaps not totally immune to the punk phenomenon.

Truthfully, not everything in “Never for Ever” works. “Egypt” is clever conceptually, but it lacks a melodic hook to make it worth it. “The Wedding List” is one of those moments when Kate’s eccentric spirit gets the best of her, as the tune feels convoluted. And such oddity also affects “Violin”, in which her unique tongue-in-cheek vocal approach to the song flirts with annoyance or parody. Rough spots such as these cause “Never for Ever” to fall below the upper echelon of Kate Bush’s work, meaning that although it is an essential part of her discography, it is no match for what would follow, especially “The Dreaming” and “Hounds of Love”. Yet, it will forever remain as the moment when the little girl from Devon started to stretch her arms widely enough to control all aspects of her work, kicking off the transformation from singer to musical legend that would soon come.




Album: Presence

Artist: Led Zeppelin

Released: March 31st, 1976

Highlights: Achilles Last Stand, Nobody’s Fault but Mine, Tea for One

As one of the pioneers of hard rock, Led Zeppelin were never strangers to heaviness. However, accompanying the godly blasts produced by the instruments of Page, Jones, and Bonham, there were always elements that added interesting nuances to the mighty pounding. The frequent notable influence of blues singers-songwriters brought a soulful emotional layer to the table and lent the band’s sound an irresistible sway that had been left untouched by most British groups not named The Rolling Stones. Plant’s high-pitched roars and sensual stage presence diluted some of the pure testosterone that emanated from the moments when the band went for full-blast rock and roll. And the gift Page and Jones had to, respectively, play the acoustic guitar and all sorts of keyboards let Led Zeppelin stretch past hard rock with some success and frequency.

It is a combination that, from “Led Zeppelin” to “Physical Graffiti”, yielded wondrous results, for it allowed the band to seamlessly tackle explosive bursts of – up until then – unforeseen power like “Communication Breakdown” as well as flirts with progressive rock of the scale of “In the Light” and moving orchestral folk balladry such as “The Rain Song”. Led Zeppelin, then, far beyond being among the most consistent groups of the era, were also – quietly – one of the most versatile; a quality that often goes sadly unsung even amidst the considerable amount of compliments thrown at the quartet.

“Presence”, however, shifts that balance completely. Mostly gestated by Plant and Page while they were away from Jones and Bonham, and made during a period in which the singer (recovering from an accident) was far from being in complete health, the album is – perhaps – the closest the world would ever get to a Jimmy Page solo record until the release of 1988’s “Outrider”. From the first to the seventh song, it is an unfiltered display of hard rock acrobatics, and given its focus on electricity, its absence of mellow moments, and the fact it boasts no keyboards whatsoever and only one instance of barely audible acoustic-guitar playing, “Presence” also happens to safely qualify as the heaviest Led Zeppelin album.

It is a label that is undeniably appealing. Yet, sheer weight does not exactly automatically translate into notable quality, and it is in that aspect that “Presence” falters. Aside from the marching epic that is “Achilles Last Stand” and the slow-burning blues of “Tea for One”, which bookend the track listing, the dryness in arrangements, the similarity in pace, and the homogeneity in the guitar tones that permeate “Presence” make all of the other cuts merge into one another, an accusation that can not be made regarding any other record in the band’s discography, not even the irregular duo of “Houses of the Holy” and “In Through the Out Door”, which often stumble due to a colorfulness that “Presence” could have used. Such lack of variety undeniably hurts it, but the main culprit in this particular case has got to be the songwriting.

Where Page and Plant had once gelled into an entity that operated in perfect synergy, “Presence” shows the pair having trouble to join their parts into a cohesive unit. Jimmy’s guitar parts, by all means the backbones of the tunes, offer the usual technical prowess that is accentuated by overdubs deployed with the taste and care of a maestro. They are, however, more complex than those of any other Led Zeppelin album, featuring a horde of licks and phrases that do not allow them to stand in place for too long. If on one hand that is a trait that keeps the instrumental portion of “Presence” playful, interesting, and dynamic inside the tight confines in which it operates, it is also an architecture that puts a considerable degree of pressure on Plant to come up with melodies that are not only good, but also suiting to the guitar fireworks of Page. The singer, sadly, does not pull off any of those tasks.

Fortunately, the failures are not simultaneous. The individual melodies are either lackluster or at odds with the backing track, never the two at the same time; and on at least two songs, “Achilles Last Stand” and “Tea for One”, they make it unscathed to the finish line, with the caveat that the latter is a less inspired rewrite of the classic “Since I’ve Been Loving You”. It is hard to say whether Page or Plant is most at fault: the guitarist could have dialed down on the complexity without losing his usual flair; the singer could have been more inspired; or his voice, which had lost a good part of its higher range by 1976, could have left the door open for wider melodic opportunities had it retained its original greatness. But the fact of the matter is that it feels “Presence” could have benefited from tighter cooperation between the parts involved.

All is not lost, though. Even if, many times, threatening to be average, the album is never truly bad. Page, Jones, and Bonham are masterful as usual, and although Led Zeppelin records have historically thrived on the quality of their sound, the band’s instrumentalists were never captured quite as vividly as they were in “Presence”, which merges a straightforwardness that nearly speaks to the ethos of garage rock with all the high-budget gloss and studio trickery that Page loved to employ. The balance between bass, drums, and guitars is impeccable, with all instruments sounding absolutely huge and clear without ever overpowering one another; as such, the proficiency of those three guys with their respective tools of work could not possibly have been made more evident.

Furthermore, in spite of how the songwriting quality is the lowest of any Led Zeppelin album, “Presence” does hide a trio of gems: “Achilles Last Stand” is, clocking in at ten minutes, the band’s best epic track, offering historical performances by Page and – especially – Bonham; “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” is a thrilling stop-and-start tune that boasts a wicked harmonica solo; and “Tea for One”, though not exactly fresh, brings about the much-needed sexy blues sway that is sadly missing from the rest of the work. Inserted within a catalog that includes monsters of the height of “Led Zeppelin IV” and “Physical Graffiti”, it is easy – and fair – to see “Presence” as a minor work, one in which the natural cracks of creative exhaustion following relentless writing and touring were starting to appear very blatantly; and that comparison risks leading many to label it as a downright bad album. “Presence”, however, is enjoyable, for although the Page and Plant magic of other releases was not so strong anymore, it was still carrying enough force to uncover a few notable moments. And with players like Jones and Bonham to back it up, even the lesser products of that match become worthwhile to a degree.

In The Wake Of Poseidon


Album: In the Wake of Poseidon

Artist: King Crimson

Released: May 15th, 1970

Highlights: Pictures of a City, Cadence and Cascade, In the Wake of Poseidon

Attached to King Crimson’s debut is a story that is all too familiar to many albums of the era, especially to those that dared to tread into somewhat unfamiliar territory. Upon its 1969 release, “In the Court of the Crimson King” garnered mixed reviews that ranged from comments praising its blend of traditional European music with classic rock in the building of epic progressive tunes to critical pieces that labeled the band’s junction of those same elements as utterly disposable and silly. With time, however, the general perception on the record shifted to a much fairer angle, as slowly but surely it earned a position as one of the cornerstones of the genre to which it belongs and also as, quite simply, one of the greatest albums of all time.

It is hard to say exactly how much of that initial irregular reception affected the group; as possibly one may argue that, if showered with praise and commercial success right then, King Crimson would become – from the get go – a stable entity. But the fact of the matter is that by the time the band went into the studio to assemble their second work, “In the Wake of Poseidon”, the line-up of “In the Court of the Crimson King” had evaporated. Vocalist and bassist Greg Lake had left to form the trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer; while drummer Michael Giles as well as Ian McDonald, who was the one responsible for the woodwinds that were so vital to the sonority of the debut, had quit shortly after the group’s first American tour.

Therefore, even though both Lake and Giles do contribute to “In the Wake of Poseidon” as session musicians, with the former singing in all but one track and with the latter being behind the kit whenever the instrument is called upon, a great portion of the album’s musical decisions fell on the shoulders of guitarist Robert Fripp, who together with lyricist Peter Sinfield appear as the sole de facto members of King Crimson on the album’s credits. And perhaps it is from such personnel turmoil that “In the Wake of Poseidon” gains its most distinctive characteristic, for rather than presenting a notable evolution in sound when compared to its predecessor, it actually comes off like the product of a band that has not had the time to evolve.

In fact, such lack of evolution is so blatant that – as its title points out – “In the Wake of Poseidon” feels a whole lot like a copy of “In the Court of the Crimson King”. As if the albums had been made using the very same mold, parallels can be traced between most of their major tracks. “Pictures of a City”, for instance, works as the album’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”, since it boasts most of the features of that classic: distorted vocals, a pounding riff that – grounded on blues – would not feel out of place in a heavy metal record, accompanying horns that add to the volume of the music whilst giving the track a slight jazzy edge, and a lengthy instrumental break that toys with tempo shifts and leaves plenty of space for Fripp to execute his signature guitar magic.

“Cadence and Cascade”, meanwhile, is a counterpart to “I Talk to the Wind”, not just because it is the quiet ballad that follows the hectic opener, but due to how it feels like it comes from a different time, as it could have been easily written by a medieval bard sitting in a garden surrounded by folkloric creatures; this time around, though, instead of being plugged into the electricity as he gently picks strings in the midst of such idyllic scene, the musician has gone appropriately acoustic. Finally, the title song is another take on the musical theme of “Epitaph”: a slow and relatively long tune whose sad and dramatic melody gains epic contours thanks to the usage of a mellotron to emulate the effect of a sweeping orchestra.

Still, “In the Wake of Poseidon” is not totally about recycling ideas, even if a very big part of it indeed is. Thus, drops of originality do appear. For starters, the album uses three small acoustic and vocal numbers titled “Peace” as bookends to its sides; given their size, though, they are more of a neat feature than a considerable artistic change. On a more significant scale, there is “Cat Food”, which combines a freestyling piano, loose guitar lines, and energetic playful vocals that occasionally harmonize to take King Crimson into the realms of improvisational jazz, elevating a tune that could be dynamited by its silly lyrics into the status of a noteworthy cut. At the same time, and on a much more negative note, there is “The Devil’s Triangle”, an eleven-minute three-part instrumental that slowly builds chaos around marching drums and loud mellotrons but that goes absolutely nowhere, drawing comparisons to the ten-minute woodwind noodling that closes out “Moonchild” from “In the Court of the Crimson King” as a moment when the band traveled way too far into progressive indulgence.

Despite its problems regarding both matters of originality and the existence of a lengthy song that does not justify its presence, “In the Wake of Poseidon” is still strong due to the simple fact that most of it is very enjoyable. Surely, “Pictures of a City” and “In the Wake of Poseidon” do not hold a candle to the tunes that inspired them, but not many do. The first, however, is an absolute thrill whether it is rocking or spiraling out of control; while the second is grand and moving in equal parts. “Cadence and Cascade”, on the other hand, is a huge step-up over the already excellent “I Talk to the Wind”, for besides exhibiting a more tasteful arrangement that tones down on the flutes, it simply overpowers that track on the strength of its vastly superior and utterly gorgeous melody. And to top it all off, “Cat Food” is stupid but fun.

To many groups of the era, the meager months that separated the sessions of “In the Court of the Crimson King” from those of “In the Wake of Poseidon” would have been enough to guarantee noteworthy musical evolution. To King Crimson, though, that interval was used by the band to completely fall apart. As such, regardless of general artistic stagnation and a glaring repeated misstep, it is a bit of a miracle that the album was not only finalized but that it came out as great as it did, showing that – as much of the rock world would come to realize later on – tenacity and talent are two of the essential components that power the genius of Robert Fripp and the ever-daring musical moves of King Crimson.

New Skin For The Old Ceremony


Album: New Skin for the Old Ceremony

Artist: Leonard Cohen

Released: August 11th, 1974

Highlights: Chelsea Hotel #2, There Is a War, Who by Fire, Leaving Green Sleeves

Famously, Canadian poet Leonard Cohen only added the titles of singer and songwriter to his list of occupations relatively late in life. For while many musicians start their careers in the field right as they bid farewell to their teen years, with many of them going on to write their masterpieces before the age of 30, Cohen only published his first album when he was slightly over that mark. His 1967 debut, humbly titled “Songs of Leonard Cohen”, was recorded and released by the time he was 33, and every single one of the notes that are part of it seems to announce its nature as the work of a man who was thoroughly confident in one area whilst being slightly insecure in another.

The words of “Songs of Leonard Cohen” are those of a battered veteran who has learned his craft quite well, as they entwine religion, sex, love, and women into a fabric that is so whole they seem like one subject; and they achieve that while landing with the emotional impact of a mallet being swung by an angry brokenhearted god and with the taste of a connoisseur who has been through the finest-written pieces of poetry. Contrarily, the somewhat naive instrumentation that accompanies them as well as the stiff singing that airs the verses reveal a musician that was still coming to grips with his newfound role. And in one way or another, the two albums that would quickly follow that striking debut would capture that balance in an ever-shifting state, as Cohen continued to exhibit stunning mastery over words and growing comfort in the shoes of a singer.

“New Skin for the Old Ceremony” is the fourth album of Cohen’s career, and also the last piece of his early folk-based works, and – arriving three years after its predecessor, “Songs of Love and Hate” – it seems to mark the point when he acquired a confidence in his musicianship that matched the one he held in relation to his poetry. That is not to say, of course, that the musical greatness of “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” is comparable to the excellence of its verses; for that to be so, Cohen would need to have the nose for melody displayed by the likes of Dylan and Young, which would – given his effective pen – almost immediately make him the best songwriter of all time. That, however, is not the case. But in “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” it is easy to see that he has grown in guitar-playing and singing.

On the two fronts, it is notable how Cohen abandons his former rigidity, often a sign of insecurity, for a looser approach. In his acoustic playing, he alternates between picking and strumming, sometimes within the same track; toys around with changes of tempo; and never falls back into the recurring Spanish-guitar patterns that, due to their sheer lack of variety, held back a few tunes of his first three albums. In his singing, meanwhile, listeners will come across revelatory energy and emotion, as Cohen will – with some frequency – step out of his otherwise monotonic grumble to utter words as if he were feeling real pain or anger, emerging, therefore, as a victim of anguish rather than a mere narrator of dark emotional tragedy.

That relentless sullenness, which is missing, had obviously served its purpose quite well in the three albums that preceded “New Skin for the Old Ceremony”, as it made Cohen come off like a man who had been through so much that the damage caused by the experiences he went through had simultaneously blessed him with endless wisdom and cursed him into becoming a powerless ghost. Its absence here, though, lends the album very vivid colors. “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” is, obviously, neither cheery nor optimistic; there is hardly room in the vocabulary of Leonard Cohen for such positivity. It is, however, warm and – in some weird ways – even playful.

In “Is This What You Wanted”, where he uses an avalanche of metaphors to compare himself unfavorably to his partner, he sounds like a brokenhearted drunk who occasionally finds enough clarity to broadcast frustration. In “Chelsea Hotel #2” he beautifully recalls a quick sexual encounter, trying to hide his blatant longing with rehearsed indifference. In “Lover Lover Lover” he alternates a confrontational conversation with God and a defeated call for a lover who is gone. In “Field Commander Cohen”, a similar variation appears, as Cohen uses a marching strum to talk about his surrealistically heroic life in the army before reverting to a soft picking that reveals he has run away from battle and now rests in bed with a woman while his peers die. In “Why Don’t You Try” he dabbles into an almost humorous meeting of jazz and music hall to depict an argument between a couple.

In “There Is a War” he, sometimes in dissatisfaction and sometimes in acceptance, concludes war is a natural and continuous part of human society. In “A Singer Must Die” he addresses critics in a mocking and self-deprecating tone. In “I Tried to Leave You” he offers a fun take on how long-term relationships can become inescapable prisons. In “Who By Fire”, the gloomiest cut on the record, he draws from a Hebrew prayer to look at the numerous ways in which one might meet the inevitable fate of death. In “Take This Longing”, where he comes the closest to the Cohen of the first three records, he coldly despairs and humiliates himself in front of a woman who refuses to love him, asking for her affection even if it is temporary and fake. And in “Leaving Green Sleeves” he pulls off the same act, with the difference that his plea is loud and anguished instead of silent and depressed.

The result of that myriad of feelings and, most importantly, tones, is the most colorful album of the first portion of Cohen’s glorious career. And despite the fact “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” does not contain any lyrical achievements that are comparable to the finest poetic moments of “Songs of Leonard Cohen”, “Songs from a Room”, and “Songs of Love and Hate”, it makes up for that disadvantage with singing and playing that display greater confidence; with melodies that are more pronounced; with arrangements that are richer than those seen in the opening trilogy; and with production choices that are more consistent and tasteful. Allied with Cohen’s unfaltering word-craft, which is always far above average, those virtues make “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” shine, establishing it as one of the best works of the poet-turned-songwriter.



Album: Hejira

Artist: Joni Mitchell

Released: November 22nd, 1976

Highlights: Coyote, Amelia, Hejira, Song for Sharon, Refuge of the Roads

During a very short period of time between 1975 and 1976, Joni Mitchell took a total of three road trips across the United States. In the first, she was part of the festive gypsy-like caravan that was Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. In the second, she led her own tour for the promotion of “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”, which would be cut short due to internal strife in her band. And in the third and final leg of her adventure, the folk singer – going from coast to coast – crossed the country twice, moving from Los Angeles to Maine in the company of a few friends and then driving all the way back to California alone through Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

With all the feelings, meetings, separations, little celebrations, occasions of lonely contemplation, and experiences that are so intricately connected to the act of stepping on the road, it is only to be expected that a sensitive and observant artist of the caliber of Mitchell would use those remarkable moments as the raw material of her ultimate craft: songs. And in that sense, “Hejira”, the album she recorded shortly after those trips, confirms the forecast, for it reads very much like a travelogue, as its nine tunes serve as brief windows into one or more key instants that marked not only her journey, but her wandering spirit as well.

Albums for or about road trips were not exactly new in 1976, and they have appeared in such abundance both before and after that year that they could easily constitute a genre of their own. However, in addition to the notable quality of its cuts, which exhibit one of history’s greatest songwriters at the peak of her powers, there is a softness and delicacy to the soul of “Hejira” that set it apart from the crowd. Surely, while Joni chronicles her exploits, the mundane friction between rubber and asphalt is vividly present, and physical distances, human longing, and earthly matters form a considerable part of the record’s contents. Nevertheless, the road in “Hejira” is also spiritual, working like a standalone realm isolated from daily stress that allows those who give themselves to its endlessness to escape worries, confront inner demons, acquire knowledge, and live episodes that can be safely left behind in the black-and-white infinity of the roads.

The credit for that thematic achievement has to be shared between many parts. It can be given to the unparalleled craftsmanship Joni has regarding putting words together. It can be attributed to her flawless angelic voice. And it can be linked to a singing style that alternates playfulness, honesty, vulnerability, and thoughtfulness. Above it all, though, it has to be laid at the feet of her production work, because “Hejira” sounds absolutely aural, as if all of its parts were gliding in the very thin line that separates what is real from what is spiritual. Its guitar work, be it electric or acoustic, is pure yet pervasive, feeling strong but threatening to elude one’s touch if they try to capture it; its bass lines are prominent, especially when handled by the legendary Jaco Pastorius, who solos tastefully over Joni’s steady strums; and all other instruments delicately float around those two central pieces.

That transcendent soundscape carried by “Hejira” gives muscle to music that finds balance between refinement and accessibility. In Joni Mitchell’s career arch, the album stands right at the point that separates her initial run of records centered on plain folk and flowery pop from the wild experiments in jazz she would later take on; as such, even if it does carry, to an even larger degree, the stylistic and structural sophistication that began to appear in its two predecessors (“Court and Spark” and “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”), “Hejira” still clicks as a universally appealing piece.

There are, of course, punctual challenges to be found along the way, and they mainly arise from the stronger leaning towards jazz presented by “Hejira”. The songs are mostly long, with the two shortest of the bunch clocking in at four minutes. Moreover, all of them lack a chorus, either relying on single sentences that serve as hooks or just being formed by lengthy sequences of verses that are propelled by cyclical instrumentation. Consequently, their flexibility and the fuel that keeps them engaging throughout their duration come, instead, in the minor instrumental and arrangement variations that occur every once in a while; in Mitchell’s signature knack for twisting melodic lines as she sees fit; and in the lyrics. And as far as that last particular item goes, “Hejira” is an inexhaustible trove of treasures, treading both on specific episodes and philosophical contemplations.

“Coyote” addresses, with fondness, the separation from a former lover who also happened to be a womanizer. “Amelia” sees the singer talking and comparing herself to lost aviator Amelia Earhart; feeling comfortable with their mutual position as strong independent women who undertook – each for their own reasons – lonely journeys, Mitchell opens up about subjects that trouble her. “Furry Sings the Blues” recalls Joni’s encounter with blues legend Furry Lewis in a poorly kept Beale Street. “A Strange Boy” narrates an affair she had with a man in his thirties who still lived with his parents. “Hejira” covers the reasons why Mitchell broke up with her boyfriend and drummer during the tour supporting “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”. “Song for Sharon”, in ten magnificent verses, is a letter to a friend, and in it Joni approaches the subject of marriage: a dream that she has nurtured since childhood but that has always eluded her. “Black Crow” explores four ways in which she is a whole lot like the titular bird. And “Blue Motel Room” gives listeners a glimpse into one of the many lonesome nights Mitchell had while on the road, as she contemplates the empty room around her while longing for a distant lover.

In that context, the stunning closer “Refuge of the Roads” is the perfect final chapter to a flawless travelogue. Encompassing multiple meetings she had during her trip, Joni Mitchell concludes her portrait of the roads that cross the United States – or any other country, for that matter – as sacred spaces where remarkable human experiences, be of the bitter or of the sweet kind, take place. As she travels through thoughts, smiles, tears, and the warm embrace of those she cares about, though, Mitchell does not lose sight of how her journey – regardless of the emotional weight it may contain – is ultimately an insignificant one amidst the immensity of the highways, of the country, of the world, and of life itself.

And as the bass of Jaco Pastorius keeps on ringing as “Hejira” comes to a close, listeners are reminded that the roads Mitchell – and many others – traveled by are still out there, and that as the record plays, the encounters and contemplations that happen in them are, in a regenerated state, still unfolding at that very minute. Because, sure, the roads seem endless; however, they do hold a final destination for everyone, and it is only thanks to the cyclical ways of the universe that the stories that have them as a scenario repeat themselves infinitely with slightly altered details. And for as long as they occur, “Hejira” will be their spiritual soundtrack.

In Through The Out Door


Album: In Through the Out Door

Artist: Led Zeppelin

Released: August 15th, 1979

Highlights: In the Evening, Fool in the Rain, I’m Gonna Crawl

Albums that are produced by fractured groups do not always necessarily suffer from such a context, as rock history has plenty of examples of records made amongst turmoil – such as Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” – that, nevertheless, found greatness amidst personal chaos. Sadly, “In Through the Out Door”, by the giants of Led Zeppelin, is not one of those positive instances. Famously, as the work that would turn out to be band’s final release due to the unexpected death of drummer John Bonham just one year later was being put together, the English hard rockers were broken into two camps.

While bassist John Paul Jones and singer Robert Plant were clean and fully committed to the project, despite the fact the latter was suffering from the recent loss of his young son, guitarist and main songwriter Jimmy Page as well as Bonham himself were struggling with substance abuse. As such, it is easy to attribute much of the surprising irregularity of “In Through the Out Door” to that state of affairs, because with Page – their main creative force – failing to be his usual productive self, it fell on the shoulders of Jones and Plant to guide much of the album in composition and arrangement, with the pair getting full writing credits in two of the record’s seven cuts and with the bassist – previously a rare sight as a songwriter – having his name, alongside those of Page and Plant, attached to the other five tunes.

The shift in the gravitational center of Led Zeppelin’s creative process can be heard clearly, because where the group’s first seven records featured Page’s guitar as their leading instrument, in “In Through the Out Door” it is the synthesizer of Jones that takes the spotlight. With the exception of the excellent “Fool in the Rain” and the passable “Hot Dog”, a tongue-in-cheek jab at rockabilly which at least turns out better than the band’s shots at reggae (“D’yer Mak’er”) and funk (“The Crunge”) seen in “Houses of the Holy”, the tool that was used as the immaculate backing to inventive exercises on hard rock suddenly gets to carry songs all the way to the finish line. And, unfortunately, it reveals it is not totally up to that task.

Nowhere is that notion clearer than in the ten-minute “Carouselambra”, where the band tries to create yet another lengthy track of epic size and magnitude, in the vein of classics such as “In My Time of Dying” and “Achilles Last Stand”, only for it to become dull before the conclusion of its first ninety seconds due to the lack of inspiration of its synthesized hook and the clunky, almost non-existent, melody of Plant’s vocals. Surely, along the trip, it tries to – in an almost progressive fashion – shift in tone and go through distinct phases, but the more it contorts itself the more awkward it gets and the more blatant its problems become.

Although problematic, “In Through the Out Door” is not to be thrown away in its entirety. Certainly, there are consistent annoyances that run through it, like the lackluster guitar solos Page executes and the fact Plant’s voice is in a weird limbo between his signature wails and his solemn lower register, being unable to find any of those edges and standing – instead – on an awkward middle ground that does not seem right for any of the songs save for “Fool in the Rain”. Still, there are bright spots.

Opener “In the Evening” succeeds where “Carouselambra” fails, as its nearly seven minutes are well spent creating a song that has a psychedelic edge and displays urgent power, perhaps because – for it – Page bothered to come up with a mighty guitar riff that is worthy of the band. Meanwhile, “Fool in the Rain” is a sunny and stylistic oddity for Led Zeppelin; a playful and light song about the despair of a guy waiting for his date at the wrong place without realizing it, the tune features clever interplay the piano of Jones and the guitar of Page, and contains a samba-inspired shuffle where Bonham proves why he is constantly ranked as the best rock drummer of all time. And as a final highlight, “I’m Gonna Crawl” is a relaxed slow-paced blues that locks on a perfect balance between synthesizer and guitar to create an atmosphere of pain, tension, lust, and anguishing love.

Ultimately, what these tracks reveal is that for “In Through the Out Door” to have worked as a whole, Led Zeppelin would have had to build it via the same approach employed in their first seven works; that is, through cooperation. Page’s state of mind during the album’s recording harmed far more than the songwriting, because even his usually stellar production work feels sloppy, as the balance between the instruments and Plant’s voice feels off in pretty much all tracks, and better arrangements or a firmer sound could have done big favors to decent tunes such as the straight rock of “South Bound Saurez”, and the sweet synth-based ballad of “All My Love”, whose lyrics were written by Plant to his deceased son.

However, given the context that surrounded it, Led Zeppelin’s usual balance of forces and creative collaborations does not show up in “In Through the Out Door”. The musical shift the album proposes, whether purposely or not, is an interesting one, for if the band had continued, one can only hope they would have moved forward stylistically. Unfortunately, the fate of Bonham and the band’s admirable decision to refuse to go on without their friend turned what could have been seen as an interesting transition record that had the potential to pave the way to more masterpieces into an irregular farewell that clearly displays the band was not working together.