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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bee Gees: Trafalgar


1) How Can You Mend A Broken Heart; 2) Israel; 3) The Greatest Man In The World; 4) It's Just The Way; 5) Re­membering; 6) Somebody Stop The Music; 7) Trafalgar; 8) Don't Wanna Live Inside Myself; 9) When Do I; 10) Dearest; 11) Lion In Winter; 12) Walking Back To Waterloo.

Early info on Trafalgar was that it was planned as a double LP with twenty songs, thus matching, if not exceeding, the monumentality of Odessa. Those plans were eventually scrapped, although enough material was recorded indeed to spill over onto the next album (ʽWe Lost The Roadʼ, in particular, was recorded during the Trafalgar sessions and would have fit on quite well), and, at 47 minutes, the final LP is still one of the longest Bee Gees offerings. It is also the absolutely last one of the «timelessly great» Bee Gees records — having gotten it out of their systems, they were creatively devastated and «lost the road» indeed: their own private Quadrophenia, if you wish, with all the necessary corrections for scope and style.

Of all the Bee Gees albums, this one is their most genuinely conceptual. If Trafalgar weren't its name, then Another Year, Another Time — extracted from ʽWalking Back To Waterlooʼ — might be the obvious choice. On all of their records, one way or another, these guys tended to look with fondness at the aristocratic past, and now they have devoted an entire album that re­volves around that topic — not always lyrically, sometimes simply in spirit. Yes, Trafalgar is slow, sentimental, drowned in orchestration and pathos, but it has itself some real class, and it seems as if with each passing year it only ends up aging better and better.

Curiously enough, it was not intended or pre-planned that way: the brothers simply fell upon a lucky star configuration. Maurice wrote the title track and the three of them wrote ʽWalking Back To Waterlooʼ — these bookmarks, together with the album sleeve (and Barry plays quite a dash­ing Lord Nel­son on the back cover, but where's the eye patch?), give the record its «Napoleonic» sheen, but its real theme, of course, is not a particular period in history, but merely a sort of I-just-wasn't-made-for-these-times longing — this is some rampant, raging escapism here, only dif­ferent from the Kinks in that Ray Davies liked to picture himself more like an innocent commo­ner, «sitting by the riverside» and all, whereas Barry Gibb sets his sights much higher — he is only willing to go back into the past in the guise of an exquisite, ceremonious Lord of the Manor. (I wish I could say «in the guise of a Byron or a Shelley», but in order to achieve that honor, at least one of the Gibbs would have to be lyrically competent).

Anyway, ʽHow Can You Mend A Broken Heartʼ broke them big in the US for the entirely wrong reason — the silly Americans took the song the same way they were taking James Taylor and the Carpenters, that is, as a simple, sissy, sentimental ballad. Consequently, when the band followed it up with the longer, denser, deeper ʽDon't Wanna Live Inside Myselfʼ, they were surprised that it did not even make the Top 50, even though, by all means, this is a much better song. Not just «better», actually — it is an absolute classic. That moment when Barry starts repeating the title against his brothers' gospel harmonies and Shepherd's monumental strings might just be the most breathtaking single moment in Bee Gees history — for me, it opens the door to some near-mysti­cal epiphany... occasionally. On worse days, it is simply one of the most successful impersona­tions of the «epic romantic loner» stereotype in pop music history.

Every single track on here overflows with pathos — but most of the time, it works, courtesy of Bill Shepherd's orchestral wizardry. And it is Barry's show all the way, I am afraid: like a grown-up, intelligently tasteful version of Cucumber Castle, past the stage of sappy folk-pop balladry and scaling the walls of «art-pop» now. Robin's minstrel leads here sometimes border on parodic: ʽDearestʼ, a lament to a departed love interest, is overacted so blatantly that one can't help but imagine the village's cheesy rustic foreman laying a rose bouquet on his wife's grave, while the Lord of the Manor is busy melancholizing somewhere high above in the castle tower. I used to hate the song — now I am more interested in taking it in its rightful context. However, it does not abolish the fact that Robin sometimes feels out of place on Trafalgar.

The foreman and the Lord do come together in a ferocious duet on ʽLion In Winterʼ (another song named after a movie on British history, certainly not a coincidence), the one place in the Bee Gees catalog where you get to hear Robin bleat and roar at the same time: once the initial aural shock is gone, it remains a memorable, inspired performance on the same old topics — loneliness, abandon, betrayal, etc. — delivered in a unique manner. (It is debatable whether the first thirty seconds of martial percussion should be part of it, though).

Funny as it is, I have never seen the Bee Gees accused of Zionism for ʽIsraelʼ, even if, formally, the song is one of the most passionate anthems to the Holy Land ever created in the Western world. But «formally» is the word — since the whole album is a fantasy, the ʽIsraelʼ in question here is just as far removed from reality as its Waterloo and Trafalgar, and what matters is not the word but the way Barry and Bill lay on those mighty crescendos, making for a wonderful gospel-soul experience. If it does worry your conscience for some reason, just replace ʽIsraelʼ with ʽShangri-Laʼ or something — it'd work that way, too.

Only a few of the songs are nominally «cathartic» — maybe three or four on the whole — but I do not mind in the least that some are less addictive and attractive than others, being too busy to dig this «early 19th century vibe». By the time we are ʽWalking Back To Waterlooʼ, the mood has been set, sharpened, and fine-tuned, and from the first notes of the "where do I begin?" cho­rus, you get teleported — not to any real «Waterloo», of course, just somewhere back in time where the grass, beyond any reasonable doubt, was so much greener and... well, unfortunately, I cannot quote any of these lyrics because they are not good ("I wish there was another time when people sang and poems rhymed" — don't tell me this is a subtle attack on atonal music and free verse, because it most probably isn't), but the words really do not matter one single bit. The voices, strings, and pianos do.

It is the last time ever that the Bee Gees would be working this magic, so please pardon them for the occasional oversinging, overstringing, and over-presumptuous self-aggrandizing. There is no attempt here to cover as much ground as possible, like there was on their Sixties' records — this might, in fact, be the only album in their career where they could have claimed to «find themsel­ves», once and for all. With this mission fulfilled, they could just as well «walk back to Waterloo again» and lose themselves one more time. Thumbs up, your Lordships — may you rest in peace and all. Thank God you have done your duty.  
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Check "Trafalgar" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. «early 19th century vibe»
    Eh? Like Beethoven and Schubert? Don't think so - the piano part of Don't want To etc. completely lacks the genius of the Mondschein Sonata - or even Für Elise - and of Schubert's Impromptu's. The Bee Gees do not represent early 19th Century early romantic vibe, but the 20th Century version of high romanticism. And some - like me - would argue that the Bee Gees, like all 20th Century romanticists, have consequently abandoned the dark side of that artistic and philosophical movement: the dispair, the melancholy, the longing for the unreachable, the overconfidence, the huge irrational changes in mood. They thus, like Hollywood romances or Danielle Steel novels, present a stale version. You won't find oversaturated strings in any Beethoven or Schubert symphony. Tchaikovsky had them on his Serenade for Strings, but then again he also composed the utterly cruel opera Mazeppa. The Bee Gees have nothing even remotely close to that one.
    This still doesn't mean anyone should dismiss the song or the album; just don't give it undeserved credits. Don't want To etc. compares to

    as fast food to exquisite cuisine. And I do appreciate fast food too. My point is that they are just two completely different leagues.

    1. This all flew past the point. Not "early 19th century musical vibe", simply "early 19th century vibe".

    2. "simply early 19th Century vibe" caught in music by the Bee Gees, which is not "early 19th Century musical vibe". Call me stupid, GS, but this is beyond my comprehension.
      Fyi: simply "early 19th Centruy vibe" is very much reflected in the music of Beethoven and Schubert.

    3. As the Chinese philosophers say, "a white horse is not a horse", MNb, and thus, "early 19th Century musical vibe is not early 19th Century vibe". "Trafalgar" has more in common with Wuthering Heights than with Beethoven and Schubert.

    4. It also has less in common with Wind and Wuthering. That Barry, he's got his own special way...

  2. "ʽDon't Wanna Live Inside Myselfʼ all means, this is a much better is simply one of the most successful impersona­tions of the «epic romantic loner» stereotype in pop music history."
    Yeah, I got problems with this one. I will give you the production's incredible--and especially that chorus, but not for the big strings and harmonies. The best part is Maurice's chugging, descending bass line that was lifted directly off of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

    But then there's the lyrics--oh my God. I'd like your interpretation of the couplet "Don't wanna live inside myself/I'm much better off alone." I know artists are allowed to contradict themselves, but in the SAME LINE?? Okay, Barry, we get it, you're an exquisite loner. But you can't have your lone wolf cake and eat it while pining for your girl, too.

    Speaking of the Fab Four, I was listening to this yesterday and noticing how much Barry tries to annunciate like John on a lot of these songs. There's one song--title escapes me--where I swear Mr. Lennon is singing instead of Mr. B. Gibb. I do like his vocals on "Greatest Man", the way they go from smooth to desperate to dry-throated crying. Of course this is where he perfected that "He-e-e-e-h" bedroom breath vocal thing, too, which always kinda creeped me out...that is until he started trying to sound like Philip Bailey on every song.

    1. I think that lyrically, Barry Gibb was inspired by Keith Reid (see Anton J's comment below), but usually ended up with simplistic nonsense rather than deeply obscure nonsense. However, I actually like that couple of lines. Supposed to mean that there are A LOT of Barry Gibbs living inside himself, and he's much better off without them. Personally, I wouldn't want to live with a lot of Barry Gibbs inside myself, either.

    2. So he's a schizophrenic and so is him, and him, and him... Yeah, An earful of Barry is worth eight in the head, or something like that. But thanks for the input. It IS a catchy song, in spite of the words, and Barry does that hoarse shouting on the verses, which I kinda like, although it's just another of the hats he wears, the lord of the lounge.

  3. Well I'm pleased you liked it George, since I love it as well.
    Note of interest though: Why is Maurice impersonating Matthew Fisher on the title track? Which reminds me, shouldn't the Procol Harum of "A Salty Dog" (album and song) be counted as one of the biggest influences on this album?

  4. I agree on "Don't Wanna Live" -- despite its funereal pace, overwrought vocalizing and impenetrable lyrics, it gets me every time.

  5. On HCYMABH, has anybody noticed somebody coughs after Barry sings, "I can still feel the breeze that rustles through the trees?" I always thought that was thrown in there as a joke.

    1. I think it's actually someone saying "Whoosh" or whatever (trying to imitate the wind). But yes, I noticed it years ago. It's a nice little touch.

  6. I love Don't Wanna Live Inside Myself, but Neil Young had to have considered suing these guys for how closely the verses resemble the verses in Helpless