ALAN PARSONS: ON AIR (1996)
1) Blue Blue Sky; 2) Too Close To The Sun; 3) Blown By The Wind; 4) Cloudbreak; 5) I Can't Look Down; 6) Brother Up In Heaven; 7) Fall Free; 8) Apollo; 9) So Far Away; 10) One Day To Fly; 11) Blue Blue Sky.
Parsons' second solo album, or, to be precise, the second album by The Ian Bairnson Project (Alan is credited as co-writer only on the two instrumentals, as well as 'Fall Free' and 'Too Close To The Sun'), finds the team independent of major labels (their Arista contract expired with Try Anything Once), free to pursue their artistic inspirations full-time, but, alas, somewhat dulled down and disfocused as time goes by and senses wither.
On the formal side, On Air is Parsons' first major conceptual release since at least Eye In The Sky. All of the songs explore the concept of flying, in one form or another — just look at the titles — and, in theory, this should work well, since Parsons' sonic landscapes have always been a bit, uh, «airy»; all the way from Icarus to balloons to parachutes to jet planes to space rockets, surely Alan can, and should, be your man to give all of them a perfect musical reflection.
That's just on paper, though. The reality is such that all the songs were written by Bairnson, and their pedestrian nature shines through more and more with each new record. Test case: 'Brother Up In Heaven', a song that must have been written with the best of motives — to commemorate the tragic death of Ian's cousin in Iraq — but ends up sounding like a bunch of soft-rock clichés, more fitting for some radio-fodderish «rootsy-artsy» Seventies' American band than an act with such a respectable «intellectual pedigree» as the APP. Vocalist Neil Lockwood adds even more fuel to the fire with his forced, theatrical pathos; a more restrained performance might have saved the song, but as it is, I just keep getting visions of onion bulbs attached to the mike.
Most of the melodies aren't completely hopeless, and all of them get the classy Parsons treatment, but there are simply no «clinchers» here — no sharp standout tracks like 'Mr. Time' or 'Oh Life' that not only become minor classics on their own, but also spread their strong aura on the rest of the album. The angry numbers ('I Can't Look Down') do not muster enough aggression, the sad gloomy ones ('Too Close To The Sun') do not accumulate enough despair, the tender pretty ones ('So Far Away') do not radiate enough beauty. To make matters worse, the folksy 'Blue Blue Sky' that both opens and closes the record is a poor choice for a theme — folk guitar ballads are not Parsons territory at all, and, as decent as the main melody is per se, it kills off Alan's age-old trademarks: the atmospheric start and the grande finale. Why should a Parsons album invite comparisons with James Taylor in the first place? I have no idea.
It might have been better if 'Blown By The Wind' had been the coda, since it is the biggest and grandest of all the songs on here, and arguably Bairnson's hardest try to match either the classic APP, or the late period Pink Floyd sound. Again, no great twists in the melody, which cuddles way too close to a generic power ballad for comfort, but they provide a solid Floydian guitar backing, Ian adds exquisite solos (he has always been a much better guitarist than songwriter, as far as I'm concerned), and Eric Stewart's gentle melancholic delivery stops exactly one inch away from the line that separates «romantic» from «pathetic» (unlike that Lockwood person) — in all honesty, he should have stolen that song for a 10cc reunion.
The instrumentals ('Cloudbreak', 'Apollo') are not at all catchy, but suitably atmospheric, and it is only while listening to them that I sort of «get» the idea of why Parsons considered On Air an artistically free release — most probably, no more silly record executives were putting pressure on him to make his instrumental music hummable. After all, the sax melody of 'Breakaway', three years before, was no less stupid and cheesy than the synth-folk dance rhythms of 'Hawkeye' ten years before. 'Cloudbreak' gives you the true Alan Parsons, a little out of breath, a little tattered, but still striving to explore new sounds — for once. Then Bairnson takes over again, and runs the good intentions into the ground.
No bad words whatsoever on the mixing, engineering, production, playing, singing (from a technical point), or the fine-looking balloon on the album cover. No denying that it is a thoroughly «Alan Parsons» album in spirit and form. Now if only the songs weren't mostly bland and boring, we could all celebrate. As it is, here is one more example of how somebody can have a great feel for solo guitar melody — and heroically suck at the art of simple songwriting. (Eric Clapton is, of course, the prime example here, with but a handful of occasional exceptions, but you all saw that one coming).
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