154

154

Album: 154

Artist: Wire

Released: September 23rd, 1979

Highlights: I Should Have Known Better, The 15th, On Returning, Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3

Much like The Stooges, the MC5, the Sex Pistols, and the New York Dolls, Wire was a punk rock band that rather than fading away slowly, burned out quickly. In their case, the interval between 1976 and 1979 was all that it took for the quartet to burst into the scene, put out three influential records, and call it a day. Sure, anyone who knows of the group’s history will point out that they would eventually return into the fray nearly one decade later in 1987 and go on to publish more than a dozen new works. However, by the time of their comeback, not only was the whole punk rock explosion a distant sight in the rear-view mirror, but Wire itself was – naturally – quite a different band.

Unlike their short-lived punk rock peers, which used their brief careers in the genre to pound mercilessly at the same style of music, Wire went the other way and took advantage of their concise classic run to cover a lot of ground. Their legendary debut, “Pink Flag”, was not just purely punk to the core; somehow launching into twenty-one tunes in thirty-five minutes, the album was actually defined as the genre’s operatic suite. Released only a few months later, “Chairs Missing” was still quite direct and focused, but it had firmer song structures and – more notably – a heavy dosage of experimentation in dark sparse songs that signaled post-punk was the new tendency in rock.

Coming out one year later and serving as the third piece of that puzzle, “154” – a number that refers to the amount of shows the band had played up to that point – is another type of animal altogether. A quick glance at the duration of the record’s thirteen tracks is enough to reveal that Wire is, here, dabbling into material that is rather different: none of the tunes are shorter than two minutes and more than half of them go over the three-minute mark, which is – for those who had written “Pink Flag” – the equivalent to progressive rock running time. Of course, such lengths could indicate Wire has actually become a standard rock band that writes normal songs, but listening to “154” reveals that is far from the case. This is an album that is more artistically ambitious than all of those that preceded it, digging even deeper in the experimental direction of its predecessors.

“154”, similarly to “Chairs Missing”, can be safely labeled as a post-punk album. There is a deal of irresistible pop catchiness to it, which does the favor of bringing accessible counterpoints to its otherwise mostly confrontational nature, but through most of the way the record checks all of the boxes expected out of the more somber spectrum of the style. “154” is cold, dark, industrial, disturbing, and distant. It does not display these qualities to the extreme of contemporaries like Joy Division or The Cure, because Wire simply does not have the serious and dramatic artistic inspirations of Ian Curtis or Robert Smith. Nevertheless, those defining elements are certainly in the package, albeit in a very distinct format, which ends up doing the album a whole lot of good.

Ultimately, what makes “154” unique is the same set of ingredients that turned “Chairs Missing” into a notable work, with the difference being that they appear more prominently this time around. This is threatening and mechanical post-punk that goes hard on synthesizers, keyboards, and – especially – guitar effects to create a peculiar atmosphere. But instead of going for such oppressive environment via the meticulously constructed path taken by other post-punk bands of the sort, Wire shuns those approaches and bets on a more basic road. What the band is doing here is essentially taking the do-it-yourself punk ethos and applying them to somber post-punk. Although much of the material is daring, nothing is pulled off in a musically ambitious way. “154” is, therefore, as basic, raw, and stripped down as it gets, using that punk spirit not to play fast-paced rock and roll, but to create experimental music.

In general, the best cuts in the album are those that match wild sonic trips with strong melodies, serving as a perfect middle ground between straightforward punk and boundary-pushing music. “I Should Have Known Better” is a cavernous track that anticipates the early releases of Echo & the Bunnymen; with cold narrated verses that reach subdued despair in the hooky chorus, it moves forward at a mechanical pace, with the song’s central beat being mostly provided by the guitars, as the drums focus on adorning the ominous soundscape with clicks. “The 15th” is melodically gorgeous; built on a layer made up of a pair of guitars, one quite clean that plays arpeggios and another drenched in noise that forms the base, the track uses synthesizers to put together what is the closest Wire has ever gotten to a post-punk ballad. With sparse instrumentation, the lengthy “A Touching Display” plods in a threatening way with dissonant guitars and drones that make it a distant offspring of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”. “On Returning” follows with a fast-paced progression filled with alien keyboard sounds that frantically build to a culminating emotional release. And similarly drenched in effects, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3” is a lighter poppier tune that flirts with new wave.

On the more purely experimental side, none of the tunes match the greatness of these five songs, but interesting results emerge nonetheless. “Two People In a Room” has a relentless paranoid groove that, in two minutes, features talking, shouting, and an attempt at a more melodic passage. Likewise, “Single K.O.”, which carries an iconic riff as its central hook, shows the members of Wire are still masters at packing unpredictable undefined structures into short running times, given this is a free-flowing composition that keeps attaching itself to different melodies as seconds pass. Finally, “Blessed State”, probably the album’s only relaxing song, has entwining guitars that – in a less technically proficient way – recall Television, since the two play contrasting arpeggio-based lines that clash in beautiful synergy.

As it happened with “Chairs Missing”, however, the downfall of “154” and the factor that keeps it away from being an equal to “Pink Flag” is the fact that Wire’s experimental detours – as commendable and inspiring as they were – fail to be totally productive with a considerable frequency. “The Other Window” and “Indirect Enquiries” are horror movie material of surrealistic musical quality, but are not exactly appealing as songs from a studio record. “Once Is Enough” and “40 Versions” have potential thanks to their interesting guitar lines, the former heavy and the latter nigh electronic, but disintegrate into chaos before they are able to build on their ideas. Lastly, “A Mutual Friend” reaches a satisfying melodic conclusion, but it takes a while wandering through dull experimentation to get there. Because of these weaker moments, “154” is far from being the stone-cold classic it could have been given the stylistic uniqueness of its construction. However, be it due to its influence on future generations or as a consequence of the bridge it builds between punk rock and avant-garde music, listening to it is not just generally enjoyable, but also key in understanding the changes rock went through when the spark of punk started to fade.

three-half

Give ‘Em Enough Rope

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Album: Give ‘Em Enough Rope

Artist: The Clash

Released: November 10th, 1978

Highlights: Safe European Home, English Civil War, Tommy Gun, Stay Free

Although strong and significant, the punk rock movement did not last for too long, with most of its representatives either burning out spectacularly or abandoning the boat quickly. In hindsight, it was not a surprising turn of events. After all, while the fast, furious, and reckless ethos of the genre created an environment that fueled the self-destructive behavior of many of its artist, its stylistic limitations – and the public outcry coming from the faithful who saw any new sounds as betrayal – chained musicians to a very tight scope that must have felt like a large ball and chain to those who wanted to explore their musicality more thoroughly. From the very start, however, even if qualifying as a punk band, The Clash seemed neither bound for a wreckage nor willing to pay too much attention to the constraints of that prison.

Even though their third record, “London Calling”, is generally considered to be the moment when the group turned their backs on the punk phenomenon, there had been – prior to that point – plenty of signs that The Clash did not care about the style’s rules. Their 1977 debut, for instance, which was absolutely filled with the roughness of the English genre, carried “Police and Thieves”, a reggae cover that rather than transforming the Caribbean rhythm, respected its characteristics and relaxed tempo. Meanwhile, midway through 1978, the band would release a single – the fantastic “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” – that took the flirtation one step further by actually mixing punk and reggae not only in sound, but also in theme, as the tune recounts a day when Joe Strummer went to the titular club to catch popular Jamaican artists.

Compared to the eclecticism of “London Calling”, which would come one year later, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is rather tame when it comes to musical evolution. In fact, many are bound to label it as a punk record, which is not entirely out of the mark. Nevertheless, even if it does so far more lightly than “Police and Thieves” and “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”, the album reconfirms the reality hinted at by both of those tracks, which is that Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon – whether because they understood punk was limiting or because they refused to stand still – were not the kind of guys to dwell in the same place for far too long.

In a way, the change presented by “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” can be easy to miss, for – as a whole – the record is even louder and more aggressive than its rebellious predecessor, “The Clash”. Vocally, Joe Strummer, likely the most genuinely angry and politically engaged man in punk rock, takes the reins in nine of the album’s ten songs, and although frequently drowned by the sound and fury of the instruments, he alternates moments when he sounds bitter with sequences when he comes off as utterly wrathful. As a consequence, Mick Jones, the guy with a pocket full of melodies that lean towards the pop and a softer voice, only gets one chance – which is unquestionably taken advantage of – to shine at the mic. More significantly, however, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is simply an album that was produced to slay, as where in “The Clash” the instrumentation came off as if it were being played in a tacky garage; in their sophomore work, the boys seem to be on a stage with mighty amplifiers.

Filled with fierce riffs that attack as directly as possible, whilst not forgetting that energetic punk spirit, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” could qualify as a hard rock work. Jones, displaying a better sense of the unique ringing guitar leads that he unleashed in “The Clash”, comes up with another strong set of lines that hold a sweeping quality. Headon’s drums sound gigantic and cutting. Simonon’s bass is thick, clear, and creative. The rhythm guitars deliver heavy pounding punches. And, in the middle of it all, Strummer shouts so his message can be heard, as he approaches both critical worldwide matters, such as misguided foreign policies and terrorism, to local themes, like the state of the punk rock scene. It is a mixture that turns tunes like the fast and explosive “Safe European Home”; the marching “English Civil War”; and Tommy Gun, with drum fills that emulate the sound of shooting, into some of the heaviest and most vicious tracks the band ever produced. And, though not up to the same quality standard, “Last Gang in Town”, in which the whole band cooks a massive groove, and “Guns on the Roof”, which borrows the riff from “Clash City Rockers”, are a thrill as well.

As consistently loud as it may be, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is not devoid of moments that, much like “Police and Thieves” on the debut, stick out rhythmically from the pack to blatantly reveal The Clash were not purely about punk. And further proving the band’s flexibility, they all land incredibly. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad”, featuring a playful loose piano, is a shuffle that provides a sarcastic look at a major drug bust that took place in Wales. Even if electric, “All the Young Punks” is nearly a ballad; boasting a yearning melody and sweet backing vocals by Jones, it is a homage to the band itself, analyzing their role as trailblazers and even defending their signing of a contract with a major label. At last, “Stay Free” is the record’s climax: written by Jones to a friend who had been arrested, it reads like an honest heartfelt letter and sounds like a pop rock anthem, with four verses that build to a cathartic chorus in which – hoping his buddy is free and part of the crowd – he urges the guy to have a drink on him.

Crushed, in the band’s discography, between one classic debut and a third effort that is repeatedly ranked among the ten best records of all time, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is often seen as a second-rate The Clash album, and two of its tunes – “Drug-Stabbing Time” and “Cheapskates” – give support to these arguments, as they do lack inspiration and feel like lesser tracks that got left out of “The Clash” for not being as good as the rest of the compositions. The status the band’s second effort carries, though, is more revealing of the group’s value than of its quality, because many are the artists that would kill for a work like “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”: one that does not rest on the laurels of its greatly praised predecessor and fearlessly challenges expectations, preparing the crowd for the wild musical trip that was imminent.

Ass

ass

Album: Ass

Artist: Badfinger

Released: November 26th, 1973

Highlights: Apple of My Eye, When I Say, I Can Love You, Timeless

It is impossible to write about Badfinger without at least making a passing mention at the dark cloud that hangs over the course of the group’s career. Active since the early 60s under a different name, the band’s talent did not go unnoticed by famous British rockers of the time, with The Who as well as The Yardbirds securing the quartet as an opening act, and The Kinks’ Ray Davies auditioning to produce them. Badfinger’s greatest claim to fame before they ever put out a full-length album, though, was the fact they were the first band to sign a contract with The Beatles’ own label, Apple, and such a magnificent nod of approval from the biggest name in the rock and roll game certainly generated a lot of expectations regarding what they would achieve.

It does not take long for one to listen to some of the best cuts by Badfinger and realize why The Fab Four saw so much promise in them. The boys could play tastefully; they could harmonize beautifully; they possessed an innocent hard-working demeanor; and in both Tom Evans and Pete Ham they had two great songwriters who, each with his personal signature, displayed a knack for crafting accessible pop rock gems with universally likable melodies. In constitution and in style, parallels between them and The Beatles were inevitable; however, while the boys from Liverpool were able to achieve constant success and deliver a string of groundbreaking records, Badfinger remained an eternal promise.

Certainly, there were a few hits here and there; moreover, the two albums that directly precede “Ass” got their fair share of critical acclaim. Sadly, though, amidst bad breaks and poor managerial decisions, the second of which would directly lead to the heartbreaking suicides of both Evans and Ham, Badfinger never had enough time and peace to acquire the traction their talent indicated they would inevitably attain. In a way, following the consistent and very good duo of “No Dice” and “Straight Up”, “Ass” offers the early signs of the fall, marking the start of a generally descending curve the group would never recover from.

“Ass” begins to materialize a change, and such a move was arguably necessary for Badfinger. As good as they were, “No Dice” and “Straight Up” struggled to surpass a certain quality threshold because they often had problems getting away from the middle of the road. The greatness seen in tunes like “Without You”, “Name of the Game”, and “Day After Day” was undeniable; their charm is so natural, their melodies are so impeccable, and their capacity to move is so timeless that it is surprising to think they did not exist before 1970. In their hooks, harmonies, and smoothness, though, Badfinger was still lacking the spark that opens the doors towards the kind of utter excellence only achieved by a select few; the one that stylishly breaks into new irresistible grounds that audiences did not even know they wanted to be introduced to. To make a The Beatles’ parallel: Badfinger was looking for its “Rubber Soul”.

“Ass”, unfortunately, is certainly not comparable to The Fab Four’s sixth studio work. In theory, at least, Badfinger had the tools to make a leap of a similar magnitude. With “Ass”, though, they seem to jump the wrong way. Produced amidst a good deal of confusion, the album’s ten cuts bring quite a surprise to anyone looking at their credits. Half of the songs featured in the record are written neither by Evans nor Ham, but by guitarist Joey Molland, who – up to that point – had already penned a handful of tracks but remained a tertiary creative force within the band. And given drummer Mike Gibbins is responsible for one tune of his own, that means just four of the songs in “Ass” come from Badfinger’s greatest writers. That configuration would, of course, not be a problem if the contributions of Molland and Gibbins were excellent. Unfortunately, they simply do not live up to the group’s usual standards.

“Cowboy”, by Gibbins, is an amateurish slab at country rock. Meanwhile, sequenced one after the other, “The Winner”, “Blind Owl”, and “Constitution” are loud, electric, and utterly generic. With the first and the last being by Molland and the middle one by an uninspired Evans, they flounder in their attempt to rock out. “Constitution” is particularly embarrassing for awkwardly verging on testosterone-infused hard rock, driving home – very clearly – the point that Badfinger was indeed made for the softest spectrum of pop rock. Molland, however, does deliver three tunes that are – in different levels – praiseworthy: the exciting “Get Away”, which is bouncy rock and roll accompanied by a wild guitar and a brass section; “Icicles”, a simple and decent ballad that stumbles in its verses but succeeds in its chorus; and the spectacular “I Can Love You”, which carries the classic Badfinger sound but that instead of operating in the usual intimate atmosphere, feels absolutely grand thanks to its arrangement and melody.

In fact, as proof that “Ass” is a bit of a misguided shot at change, most of its best moments are found when the band is doing what they did in “No Dice” and “Straight Up”; that is, executing some good old power pop balladry. Other than “I Can Love You”, such instances come to the surface in both Pete Ham’s “Apple of My Eye”, the opener and a surprisingly sweet farewell letter to The Beatles’ label, as Badfinger was getting ready to move to Warner Bros.; and Tom Evan’s “When I Say”, which uses great harmonies, touching melodies, and a nice brief solo to check all of the boxes to get the Badfinger stamp. The exception to that rule is closer “Timeless”, a Pete Ham composition that breaks the rules and is resoundingly successful. Clocking in at nearly eight minutes, it is a dark, slow, and dramatic piece that drinks from progressive music in its usage of the flute and in the three-minute solo that ends it, and from hard rock in the vicious guitar riffs of its chorus.

Had it been more like “Timeless” and less like “Constitution”, the change that begins to be executed in “Ass” could have produced good results. As it was put out, though, the album feels like an unfortunate turn towards music that is louder and more electric. It is a decision that rather than finding Badfinger an extra layer of personality winds up corroding a good part of the band’s charm; and it is a mistake that, due to the prevalence of Joey Molland’s compositions, feels like it could have been avoided if Tom Evans and Pete Ham had either been given more room to operate or been a more active part of the album’s construction. And much to the loss of the rock genre, the first and brutally talented formation of Badfinger would not have much time left to correct the course.

Goats Head Soup

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Album: Goats Head Soup

Artist: The Rolling Stones

Released: August 31st, 1973

Highlights: Dancing with Mr. D, 100 Years Ago, Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker), Angie

From the get go, the odds were heavily stacked against “Goats Head Soup”. After all, between 1968 and 1972, The Rolling Stones had reached the peak of their creative powers and, in the process, the band had mounted what is likely the most legendary run of albums in rock and roll history. Made up of “Beggars Banquet”, “Let It Bleed”, “Sticky Fingers”, and “Exile on Main St.”, it was sequence of works that drank from Chuck Berry and other stars of the genre as well as from a large number of blues legends, learned the basics of what they had done, revamped the rhythms they employed, and introduced them to a large new audience that – otherwise – would probably have remained unaware of the greatness of those American musicians.

Because it is not a nigh flawless classic that stands as a mandatory stop for anyone looking to get a hang of what exactly rock music is, “Goats Head Soup” marks the end of that run. It is the comedown following the transcendence. It is an absolutely normal album that does not get even close to the landmark status of its four predecessors. With so much spectacular material released, and with so much history written, in such a small amount of time, it is easy to look at the fact “Goats Head Soup” is not utterly stellar as the product either of creative exhaustion or from how, after abusing drugs for so long, the group’s vices had finally taken their toll on the five British lads.

It is impossible to say for sure if those claims are valid, and the substance-abuse take is particularly questionable because not even the mythological narcotics-related events of the “Exile on Main St.” era were able to stop Jagger and Richards from creating a masterpiece. What is undeniably true is that “Goats Head Soup” is the beginning of a transition; the starting point of a journey that would have The Rolling Stones slowly cleaning the dirt, blood, sweat, sex, and booze of their blues influences until their arrival at the pure – and very much lifeless and mundane – rock sound that would mark a lot of the rest of their career. But “Goats Head Soup” hangs onto the lifeline not only because, as an early stage of the transition, a huge part of the filthiness remained, but also because Jagger and Richards were still writing well whilst Mick Taylor (the not-so-secret weapon of the band’s classic period) persisted as a contributor despite the troubles he endured in the hands of his two most famous peers.

“Goats Head Soup” is different because where the four major works that preceded it might as well have been made inside an hermetically sealed chamber in which only roots American music existed, their successor has a far more cosmopolitan character. Mostly recorded in Jamaica, which according to Richards was one of the only countries in which he was allowed to live at the time, the album incorporates local musicians, African percussions, and funk sounds (courtesy of a clavinet that is very prominent on two tracks) into the cauldron of The Rolling Stones’ circus. These elements contribute to taming some of the band’s dirty debauchery and adding a surprising layer of sleekness to the music, and although – as one might expect – such trait occasionally damages the album, it also takes the band to interesting new grounds.

The distinctive aura of “Goats Head Soup” is visible from the get-go, as “Dancing with Mr. D”, even if built over one catchy riff, gains unique dark contours in its mid-tempo and in its chant-like chorus, which play around with The Rolling Stones’ supposed satanist image. “100 Years Ago” goes the other way and brings funk to the table, starting with a beautiful melody delivered over a leading clavinet before evolving into a fast jam that has Mick Taylor shining on guitar. Carried by a piano, “Coming Down Again” is a gorgeous ballad that has Richards singing while his guitar decorates the track with rainy descending effects created with a wah-wah pedal. “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” has a signature The Rolling Stones rocking groove, with horns included, that flirts with funk thanks to the reappearance of the clavinet. And “Angie” closes out the first side with the band’s most famous acoustic number: one of the few instances in the group’s discography that has Jagger genuinely evoking feelings of heartbreak.

Meanwhile, bookending the second half of “Goats Head Soup” are two rock and roll tunes that are the closest the band gets to their traditional sound. “Silver Train” and “Star Star” are blatantly inspired by the swinging steady rhythms of Chuck Berry (especially the latter), but the results they produce are rather different, for where the first is too clean for its own sake and comes off as a track Jagger and Richards could have penned on autopilot in spite of some interesting guitar-playing and the clever usage of the harmonica to simulate a train’s whistle, the second is simply a thrill. Between those two numbers are another three cuts that display “Goats Head Soup” is attempting to break away from the past.

Although being a blues-based loop consisting of two changing lines and a simple chorus, “Hide Your Love” finds personality in the bouncy piano that leads it, in the free-flowing lead guitar by Taylor that accompanies it, and in how it slowly builds to catharsis by having the intensity of Jaggers’ voice rise and by bringing new instrumental elements to the fray as the track progresses. “Winter” is – by that point – The Rolling Stones’ lushest ballad, evoking the coldness of the season via its moving melody and the nicely arranged strings that close it. Finally, “Can You Hear the Music” feels like an improvised jam (with horns, guitars, keyboards, percussion, and even a flute) that, though not completely great, does carry one or two inspired moments.

There is no doubt “Goats Head Soup” could have been a better work. Its tracks are somewhat unevenly distributed along its two sides, with all of the best ones being contained in the album’s first half. More gravely, its infamously murky production is a considerable mistake, because although the gloss it adds does further help the record stand on his own, it also ends up creating a layer of mist that separates listeners from The Rolling Stones, therefore diminishing the power of the group’s rawness and characteristic interplay. Yet, even with those issues and one or two moments that flirt with the lackluster, “Goats Head Soup” is a strong album that has been unfairly – but understandably – debased by its predecessors, and anyone listening to it either with no knowledge of the context of its release or without expecting it to have the same impact as its older brothers is likely to see it for what it is.

The Cars

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Album: The Cars

Artist: The Cars

Released: June 6th, 1978

Highlights: Just What I Needed, Bye Bye Love, Moving in Stereo, All Mixed Up

Although by no means the strongest track to be found in The Cars’ 1978 self-titled debut, “My Best Friend’s Girl” is probably the record’s most well-known song. And it also happens to be the tune that best summarizes the band’s overall sound. Sung by a young man stuck in the painful situation of watching the girl he once dated – and who very much still has a strong pull over his heart – become his best friend’s one and only, the cut strikes a balance that only a group like The Cars could pull off. Quietly, in the left channel, a standard rock and roll riff plays along, anchoring the whole composition in the tradition of Chuck Berry and Little Richard while also lending it a forward energetic motion that contrasts with the rest of its controlled instrumentation. Despite that notable pillar, though, “My Best Friend’s Girl” is certainly not a rock and roll song, just like The Cars are not a rock and roll band.

Sure, you could dance to “My Best Friend’s Girl”, and the hand-claps and playful solo that appear at one point could cause one to mistake it for a Buddy Holly cover. But The Cars decorate the rough heart of Ric Ocasek’s straightforward compositions with so much sleekness that the nine tunes their first work contains mutate in their journey from the paper to the tape; originally intended as rock songs, they sneak up on listeners as delightfully catchy pop gems. It is, of course, not an original concept: as part of the new wave movement, by 1978, both Blondie and Elvis Costello – to name two popular examples – had already put that formula to use at least a handful of times, and the results had been mostly stellar. The Cars, though, operate on a slightly different level.

Likely as a result of the presence of producer Roy Thomas Baker, who was behind the board for many of the records that constituted Queen’s run of greatness, “The Cars” is characterized by multi-tracked harmonies so blatantly operatic that they could lead the British quartet to sue for plagiarism. Regardless of feeling out-of-place for the most part, as their scope is just too bombastic for the punk spirit of a huge slice of the material, they do work towards augmenting a handful of songs that are somewhat more complex, like the closer “All Mixed Up”, which slowly builds to a grand catharsis. However, given that element is the product of external influence rather than internal concoction, the tools in which one can find the truly inherent portion of The Cars’ personality – and certainly the pieces that contribute the most to their excellence – are elsewhere.

The guitars, courtesy of Elliot Easton and Ric Ocasek, are wonderfully eclectic, being able to freely move between punk rock crunch, power pop jangle, heavy metal riffing, and sweeping power chords, sometimes within the same short song; Easton’s leads, in particular, are stellar, as he constantly breaks into solos that – in spite of their clear technical proficiency – are subdued enough to serve the tracks whilst succeeding in thrilling with a rate that is utterly rare. The fact The Cars possess two vocalists, Ocasek himself and Benjamin Orr, only serves to augment that elasticity, as the former takes on the role of the do-it-yourself punk who would never be allowed close to a microphone outside of the genre while the latter is the smoothly confident womanizer who seems to have been born to front a rock band.

The Cars’ secret weapon, though, is keyboardist Greg Hawkes, who pours synthesized gloss into the music. It is his playing that forms the pop veil that distracts audiences from directly concluding the band drinks as much from the rock and roll bible as The Ramones did. It is his equipment that turns The Cars into a new wave outfit that took the wrong turn on some Boston alley, ended up crash landing many decades into the future, and stumbled upon a time-controlling deity that allowed them to return to their original era as long as they gave the world a taste of what was to come. If some of the tracks that appear in their debut were used as the fake repertoire for the forged band of a science-fiction flick, an audience that is unaware of who The Cars are would never question the authenticity of the material or label it as a relic from the end of the seventies.

Truth be told, there are a few moments that could give the disguise away. “I’m in Touch with Your World”, which is – by a good margin – the weakest song in the album, is a tense, paranoid, and rhythmic track that takes a jab at what the Talking Heads did in their first record; “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”, meanwhile, bumps into the cheesiness found in the worst rock products of the turn of that decade thanks to how it is partially sunk under the weight of its exaggerated harmonies, which are simply too large for the kind of tune it is. Mostly, though, The Cars fly down a lit-up futuristic highway with the style of a Corvette.

“Good Times Roll” moves forward steadily, slowly, and hypnotically. “Just What I Needed”, initially carried by a firm beat that soon afterwards gains extra propulsion due to the emergence of Hawkes’ synthesizers, speeds up to a glorious chorus. “Don’t Cha Stop” is frantic and finds cleverness in how it swaps the guitar licks between its verses, which would usually be formed by a pounding riff in the hands of a less inventive band, with a catchy jangle. “Bye Bye Love” also goes for arpeggios, but in its case that style of guitar-playing is used as a delicate element that contrasts with a crunchy and immediate chorus. And “Moving in Stereo” relies so heavily on keyboards that it comes off as a piece of psychedelic synthpop, describing one weird trip that has the protagonist of the song stuck in a nightmarish landscape where his consciousness and body have become separated.

Through all those twists and turns, The Cars never lose sight of the importance of a good hook, whether it is instrumental or vocal. And, for that reason, their self-titled album has often been seen as one of those first works that are so consistent that they feel like a collection of greatest hits. To a point, it is a good evaluation, because even “I’m in Touch with Your World” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” hold value and immediacy; on the other hand, debuts of the sort tend to stand tall in the discographies of the groups that produced them, and The Cars would actually go on to put together a few albums that would, on the heels of sharper writing and cleaner execution, be at least as good as their first act. Independently from sticking completely or not, that label is certainly appropriate. What is most important, however, is that The Cars’ sound comes from an era humanity has yet to reach; and in it, rock and roll – a genre that continually seems to be on the verge of extinction – has continued to exist, even if under the guise of synthesizer-drenched pop.

Presence

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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

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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.

Captain Fantastic And the Brown Dirt Cowboy

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Album: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Artist: Elton John

Released: May 19th, 1975

Highlights: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Tower of Babel, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, We All Fall in Love Sometimes

Extravagance has, for the longest time, been an adjective that is closely related to Elton John. From the glasses to the outfits; from the life of luxury to the massive vices; from the wild on-stage persona to the charming yet difficult off-stage personality; from the exuberant pop craft to the abundant musical inconsistencies; the journey of the singer-songwriter has been one of intense extremes, with little room being left in his lore for moments of calculation or control. And along that road of excess, the first of the two albums he would release in 1975, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”, represents perhaps the peak of all the absurdity.

Surely, with its eleven tracks and forty-six minutes of length, the album looks rather humble when put beside the sprawling magnificence of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, which – released two years before – featured seventeen tracks and almost reached for the eighty-minute mark. However, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is not outrageous in sheer size; its utter lack of restraint actually comes to the forefront in the nature of its content. In it, both Elton John and Bernie Taupin, his lyricist, choose to build an autobiographical record that, rather than telling their story in straightforward terms, dresses them up – respectively – as the titular pair of heroic characters, making the work qualify as a huge exercise in constructing one’s own personal mythology.

If that sounds like exaggerated self-importance, that’s because it certainly is, especially when one considers that, by 1975, Elton John was merely six years into his career. And if there ever is a point when it is acceptable for artists to pay homages to themselves, it absolutely does not come so soon in their trajectory. Yet, for John and Taupin, the ego trip just works. Partially, it clicks because, given his track record, it seems to be just the kind of ridiculous attitude the singer would have, and his ability to pull the preposterous off with a tongue in his cheek just makes the acrobatics endearing instead of objectionable. But, more flagrantly, it succeeds because, following a quick succession of seven great albums packed with gems and only one dud of a record, the quickly put together “Caribou”, it is simply impossible to say the pair were not entitled to toot their own horn in public, for they were in the midst of one of the greatest creative runs in rock and roll history.

With that being said, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is not the best Elton John album. It does not have the cohesiveness and rich musical heritage of “Tumbleweed Connection”; it lacks the immediacy of “Honky Château”; and it fails to match the variety and quality peaks that lie within “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. Furthermore, its excessively sleek production not only reveals shades of the middle-of-the-road pop rut John would be locked in for many of the years that would follow the record’s release, but it also somewhat erodes that hectic, unpredictable, wild, loud, and rough nature that can be found in the best cuts of the classic era of his career. Nevertheless, when it comes to sheer consistency, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” stands firmly next to the finest works the singer has produced.

The title track, which opens the album, starts with a gorgeous country segment worthy of the greatest moments of “Tumbleweed Connection” before turning, during its second part, into a very good rocker. And it is in the first half of that tune that the key to the album lies, because in it the junction of the delicate acoustic guitar strings and John’s moving singing makes the narration of the meeting between the city-slick Captain Fantastic and the country-raised Brown Dirt Cowboy be both humbling and touching, as it depicts – with absurd honesty – the uphill battles the pair faced before they found each other as well as in the beginning of their shared career. The empathy created by those brief, but magnificent, two minutes is essential, not just for how it dispels any potential aversions to a self-homage, but also because struggle is, in fact, the subject around which the entirety of “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” seems to be built, as – one way or another – nearly all of its songs touch on that matter.

With listeners firmly attached to the two central characters and, therefore, interested in the fights they have to win, the album departs on an engaging musical and thematic journey that does not embellish fame, choosing – on the contrary – to mostly tackle the brutal elements that come with it, especially as it centers on the years when Elton and Bernie were still trying to make it big. There are nods to substance abuse; references to the schemes and politics of the entertainment industry; notes on the grueling challenges young artists need to face, as they are explored by publishers and forced to relentlessly tour small venues to earn enough money to buy a meal; takes on the personal and emotional troubles that come with such high demands; and, on a brighter side, sweet homages to the beauty of shared artistic creation, which, in the end, is what keeps the ship afloat.

Musically, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is mostly formed by tunes that lean towards slow tempos and bittersweet tones, as both John and producer Gus Dudgeon go for an accessible brand of soft piano rock with plenty of keyboards, extremely clean guitars, and a nose for moving songwriting. There are, obviously, tinges of other stylistic influences that had – before that point – been part of the singer’s repertoire, like the country-flavored spectrum of American roots music and a flashy glam approach that merges the rock and roll silliness of Marc Bolan with the flamboyant well-produced characterizations of David Bowie. But, despite those forces and a handful of moments when the record either threatens to take off, as in the frantic chorus of “Bitter Fingers”, or rocks out shamelessly, as it does in “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket”, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” feels like a large collection of tracks that flirt with balladry.

To some, that may lead the record to be an excessively sterilized version of Elton John, but the most likely outcome is that it will actually be perceived as one of his greatest moments. The melodies are invariably excellent, even if they are not, for the most part, as immediate as those carried by John’s most famous hits; and allied with the candidness of Taupin’s lyrics, the general sweetness that permeates them, and the fragility that is displayed throughout its running time, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is successful in being not only a wonderful listen, but also in transforming what could otherwise be a concept that reeks of indulgence and self-importance into a likable look at the wildness of the pursuit and attainment of fame.

New Skin For The Old Ceremony

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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.

Tonight’s the Night

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Album: Tonight’s the Night

Artist: Neil Young

Released: June 20th, 1975

Highlights: Tonight’s the Night, Roll Another Number (For the Road), Albuquerque, Tired Eyes

Like it happened with “On the Beach”, its predecessor, the title of “Tonight’s the Night” can be awfully deceiving. While the first record was given a name that brings ideas of a relaxing paradise to mind, only to then reveal itself to be an album built on bitterness, anger, and lonesome contemplation; the second was dubbed with an expression that electrifies the brain with positive expectations and youthful excitement, almost making the neurons prepare themselves for impending hours where limits are few and possibilities are many. What lies below that surface, though, is the depiction of – quite possibly – the darkest and most depressing moment of a career that has lasted for more than fifty years, as the proclamation of the sentence that names it was spurred not by thrill, but by the kick in the gut that one receives when discovering someone close to them has passed away. And in the case of Neil Young, that crushing sensation came twice in a very short interval.

First, the singer-songwriter went through the horror of discovering his friend, the talented guitarist Danny Whitten, had overdosed on alcohol and medication in the evening of the very same day he was dismissed by Young from an upcoming tour due to his inability to keep up with the rehearsals. About six months later, and serving as the subject of the title track, a telephone call let him know one of his roadies, named Bruce Berry, had met the same fate via a combination of heroin and cocaine. The human tragedies that lie within drug-inflicted problems were not by then unfamiliar to Young, who in 1972 had already addressed the topic in the classic tune “The Needle and the Damage Done”, a track inspired by how he saw strangers, those around him, and even himself lose a bit of their talent and humanity to those substances. But the deaths of Whitten and Berry appeared to be some sort of tipping point for Young, a juncture when the pile of catastrophes grew so big that it broke him.

It is out of that wreck that “Tonight’s the Night” emerges. The title works as a reference to the nights when he was told about those deaths; the nights when friends were lost; families were shattered; tears were shed; and eternal scars were created. And even though it is impossible to know for sure what Young felt on those days, he does a pretty remarkable job in conveying it through music, for as the opening track silently announces that tonight is the night when tragedy is about to arrive via a phone call, listeners are taken through an emotional journey that holds no bright colors or points of relief, as the album navigates a spectrum dominated by sorrowful shades of white, black, and gray.

As far as records concerned with sadness go, though, “Tonight’s the Night” is somewhat strange. For although it certainly works as a funeral of sorts, where its attendees are so destroyed by grief they can barely speak, there is an unusual celebratory vibe that permeates it. Part of it has to be attributed to the raw and honest way in which the album was recorded, as throughout its course it becomes clear that besides committing most of the tunes to tape while so heavily intoxicated that all of the tracks threaten to fall apart, Young, his band-mates, and the work’s producers opted to use a lot of first takes – in all their spontaneous erratic glory – in the construction of the album. As such, “Tonight’s the Night” is immaculate in how it takes its audience to a room where musicians that chose to drown the sorrow of their unbearable losses in drugs and alcohol – the very same substances that killed their friends – gather around a microphone to play for the souls of the departed.

It is a smoky, drug-addled, and real musical celebration that is part burial and part seance, and amidst flubbed notes, clumsy harmonies, mistimed entries, and blundered lyrics, raw human misery comes through. “Tonight’s the Night”, however, is not just a work of bold atmospheric greatness, it is also a masterclass in songwriting, and it is in the combination of those elements that it shows its qualifications to rank as a rock and roll landmark. Presented here, in reckless abandon that is too depressed and drugged to get up from the chair on which it is sitting, are numerous staples of the Neil Young repertoire, including ballads of uncanny beauty, hard rock numbers whose guitars are played from the gut rather than from the heart, cuts of charming folk simplicity, and tasteful country infusions, all underlined by a piano-rock approach that gives the album its central musical personality, and in each of those categories, the harvested crops of “Tonight’s the Night” come either on top of the rest of his rich output or quite close to the summit.

The two versions of “Tonight’s the Night”, which open and close the album, are visceral, tense, bare-bones, and threatening. “Speakin’ Out” is piano-based blues at its loosest state. “World on a String” is a short, fast, and catchy slice of riff-focused hard rock. “Borrowed Tune”, which employs a slowed-down version of the melody from The Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane”, shows Young at his frailest, as he confesses he has ripped Jagger and Richards off because he is too wasted to write his own tune. “Mellow My Mind” is so soft, tipsy, and beautiful one is inclined to give Young the relief he asks for. “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” has stunning harmonies sung by vocalists that are too stoned to get them right. “Albuquerque” stars a pedal steel guitar that tugs at the heart and is, by itself, enough justification to place Ben Keith as the instrument’s greatest and most tasteful player ever. “New Mama” is such a fragile combination of voices and acoustic guitar that it feels like it will break at any moment. “Lookout Joe” is a clumsy and energetic explosion of distortion. And “Tired Eyes”, which alternates an almost narrated verse with a drunk chorus of gorgeous melody and cathartic sorrow, is absolutely gripping in its sadness.

Most haunting and moving of all, though, is “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown”. Quietly stuck in the album’s first side, it sticks like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the tracks not just due to fact it is a live recording, but also because of how it carries a purely happy energy that has no place in a work like “Tonight’s the Night”. Its inclusion in the album, however, is more than justified once one realizes that the person who sings it, plays its lead guitar line, and signs it alongside Young is none other than Danny Whitten himself, in all of the beautiful and inescapable glory that he had before an overdose ended his short life.

More than a nod to his departed friend or even proof that the stoned musical seance that is “Tonight’s the Night” was so well-conducted that the spirits of the dead did come out of their graves, it serves as a poignant warning on how substance abuse has the capacity to corrode lives little by little until they simply cease to be; and that the overwhelming sadness which lingers on in the hearts of those who stay behind – one that is accurately documented in the other tracks of the album – has a weight that is equivalent to the beauty of that soul and the capacity that it displayed for touching the lives of those around it. And in spontaneously exploring, via fantastic music, these two sides of death, the one that is snuffed out and the one that desperately tries to find the strength carry on, “Tonight’s the Night” acquires the magnitude of an all-time great artistic achievement, and also of a brutally vivid depiction of life at its roughest emotional edges.