BEE GEES: TRAFALGAR (1971)
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.
Check "Trafalgar" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Trafalgar" (MP3) on Amazon