BEE GEES: TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN (1972)
1) Run To Me; 2) We Lost The Road; 3) Never Been Alone; 4) Paper Mache, Cabbages & Kings; 5) I Can Bring Love; 6) I Held A Party; 7) Please Don't Turn Out The Lights; 8) Sea Of Smiling Faces; 9) Bad Bad Dreams; 10) You Know It's For You; 11) Alive; 12) Road To Alaska; 13) Sweet Song Of Summer.
In an older review, I seem to have been a bit unfair to this record — probably because, next to the concentrated, concise, and conceptual grandeur of Trafalgar, this one seems to lack focus so much that its throwaways, unlike Trafalgar's, lack the chance to be «saved by the frame». In other words, where Trafalgar was «the bomb», To Whom It May Concern is «the shards», a chaotic collection where old outtakes, surprising new experiments, and intentionally commercial, sometimes «dumbed-down» productions are mixed together without a clear plan. Obviously, this generates a feeling of «faltering» and «insecurity» — even the album title seems to suggest something like, «well, naturally, we don't insist that you listen to this, unless you are a Bee Gees vet fan or something...».
What must have happened was that the recording of Trafalgar, much like the recording of Odessa two years earlier, left the band out of breath, yet, instead of taking a recommended break, they decided to plough on quickly, while the new wave of popularity, caused by the success of ʽHow Can You Mend A Broken Heartʼ, was still high. Hence, three more singles in 1972 — all of them lush ballads for sure, although not a single one came close to replicating their biggest US success so far. Unfortunately, this time around these songs are just that — lush sentimental ballads with relatively simple, easily understandable content, not particularly distinguished through any exquisite «aristocratism» or baroque flavors. Where ʽHow Can You Mend A Broken Heartʼ not only works on its commercial own, but also easily fits into the general puzzle of Trafalgar, a song like ʽRun To Meʼ is simply ʽRun To Meʼ, no less, no more.
At least ʽBroken Heartʼ had an introspective component to it, a trivial philosophy that was non-trivially expressed through music — the lead-in number on this record is sheer candy for the crystally clear teenage heart (and I do stress «teenage», given the line "now and then, you need someone older" — considering that Barry was twenty-six at the time, it would be a stretch to accuse him of grandfatherly instincts). At least it is well-written and beautifully sung candy — just a good song, whatever — but, as a greeting, it clearly states that a second Trafalgar is not to be expected: the boys are running up the Sentimental Hill again.
And yet it actually helps that the band has «lost the road» one more time — this suspended state of «where to now?» results in an unexpected return to diversity. In fact, one distinguishing feature of To Whom It May Concern is that it is all over the place, easily their most diverse record since 1st. See for yourself: in addition to sentimental tear-jerkers / heart-breakers (ʽRun To Meʼ, ʽI Can Bring Loveʼ) there is a philosophical Trafalgar outtake (ʽWe Lost The Roadʼ); a loud, glammy pub-rocker with screechy electric guitars and big fat basslines (ʽBad Bad Dreamsʼ); a blues boogie (ʽRoad To Alaskaʼ); some acoustic folk- and country-rock; a hilariously absurdist Brit-poppy «mini-musical» (ʽPaper Maché, Cabbages & Kingsʼ); and a moody psychedelic piece dominated by a moo-moo-mooing Moog melody (ʽSweet Song Of Summerʼ) that almost echoes the Gregorian somberness of ʽEvery Christian...ʼ.
Not all of these ideas may work, but the important thing is that they are all there — this makes the Bee Gees album the equivalent of the Stones' Goats Head Soup: nothing seriously new, not all of it ringing true, and no particular idea of where we are going to, but give it time to grow, and once you have had enough of all the acknowledged «classics», you may be in for a bunch of surprises. ʽPaper Machéʼ, in particular, had always struck me as a fairly «risqué» piece for a band that seemed to have left sheer silliness way, way behind them in the past, yet here they are diddling away on banjoified mandolins, making parodic fun of their own «soulfulness» in the bridge section, and winding it up with a jolly good chant of "Jimmy had a bomb and the bomb went bang, Jimmy was everywhere". Australian childhood memories?
ʽWe Lost The Roadʼ and ʽSweet Song Of Summerʼ are the other two «lost gems» off the album — the former was indeed recorded for Trafalgar, but was excluded from the final abridged version, judged as one anthem too many; as one of those «where have all the good times gone» sermons that the Gibbs are always so good at, it is beyond reproach. As for ʽSweet Songʼ, it is actually one of the most «disturbing» codas to a Bee Gees album ever — brewing up an atmosphere of ominousness and impending doom with its unhurried pace, torture chamber echoes, and Moog-from-hell passages, but you never really know what sort of impending doom that is. It just impends, that's all. For the record, Mike Vickers of Manfred Mann is credited for mann-ing (sorry) the synthesizers on that track — apparently, getting just the right sound for the song was a top priority for the brothers.
ʽBad Bad Dreamsʼ, the album's lonely and risky venture into hard-rock territory, is also surprisingly decent — mainly due to Maurice's choice of a thick, brawny, but melodic tone for his bass, and to the brothers' new working partner Alan Kendall's aggressive style of lead guitar playing (Kendall actually jumped on board ship as early as Trafalgar, but flashy electric guitar was very much not a priority for Lord Horatio «Barry» Nelson and his crewmates). Of course, with the Bee Gees and hard rock, the question is always «will they or will they not embarrass themselves?» rather than «will they or will they not come up with a hard rock classic?», but a good hard rock number on any Bee Gees album, provided it's really credible, is always welcome — at least, for an important psychological reason.
The «sweeter» part of the deal, always aided by Shepherd's tasteful arrangements, still strives for seriousness occasionally — Barry's ʽAliveʼ, for instance, is genuinely grandiose, unlike the much schlockier ʽRun To Meʼ and ʽI Can Bring Loveʼ. Robin is best experienced here on ʽNever Been Aloneʼ and ʽSea Of Smiling Facesʼ, but neither is a big favourite of mine — I believe his vibrato really only works well along with a baroque flavor, whereas these here songs are more in standard folk-pop («soft-rock») territory and end up on the cheesy side of life. Meanwhile, Maurice tries to go for a vibe somewhere in between James Taylor and very early Beatles circa ʽAsk Me Whyʼ on ʽYou Know It's For Youʼ, but the song is almost surprisingly primitive-sounding (of course, from some perspective or other, this could be interpreted as charm).
To Whom It May Concern marked several important «lasts» in the band's career — most importantly, it was their last album recorded at London's IBC Studios (from now on, most or all of the band's recordings would be done in America) and the last one with the participation of Bill Shepherd. Thus, if we are setting up demarcating lines, it still makes sense to place it in the same period with Trafalgar, despite suffering from a clear «post-masterpiece» syndrome. It does not as much initiate the band's decline as it simply resigns itself to sweeping around the corners — with mixed, yet occasionally fascinating results. No need to rush, but if you are interested in setting up a block post for the Bee Gees that would leave ʽNights On Broadwayʼ somewhere on the other side, make sure that To Whom It May Concern still stays on the right side. In the end, I reassess it as a thumbs up — conceptuality be damned if it helps bring back somberness and silliness at the same time.
Check "To Whom It May Concern" (MP3) on Amazon