BEE GEES: MR. NATURAL (1974)
1) Charade; 2) Throw A Penny; 3) Down The Road; 4) Voices; 5) Give A Hand, Take A Hand; 6) Dogs; 7) Mr. Natural; 8) Lost In Your Love; 9) I Can't Let You Go; 10) Heavy Breathing; 11) Had A Lot Of Love Last Night.
By mid-1973, the Bee Gees were in a total commercial and, one could say, «ideological» rut, as if someone had surreptitiously removed the spindle from their previously well-functioning machine — a Midnight Special performance where a completely out-of-focus, utterly ridiculous-looking band backs Chuck Berry on ʽReelin' and Rockinʼ (may be found here) might, perhaps, not be typical of their live shows at the time, but is nevertheless perfectly symbolic. Their follow-up to Tin Can had the weirdest working title in Bee Gees history (A Kick In The Head Is Worth Eight In The Pants), but we never got to officially hear what it was all about, since RSO rejected it on the spot (essentially, it was Tin Can Vol. 2, and RSO were quite right in that nobody except for completists and historiographers should really bother to bother). The whole situation was ridiculous — the brothers were really trying to adapt, but the public just wasn't buying.
The subsequent story is well-known and need not be retold once again: the «Atlantic alliance», the link-up with Arif Mardin, the move to Miami, the embracing of funk and then disco dance-pop, the falsettos, the leisure suits, the hairy chests... but actually, we are running a little bit ahead here. Before all the madness, there happened to be Mr. Natural — a transitional album which, as far as I am concerned, is preferable to all of their 1975-1979 (and beyond, for that matter) stuff put together: one of their best records of the decade and arguably the last «great» offering from the brothers before they switched to a completely different aesthetics.
If there are any «seeds» of the Saturday Night Fever spirit sown here, they are only seeds, and with a more tasteful direction, they could have actually grown into something much more serious than "what'ch' doin' on yer back?". Right from the get-go, Mardin suggested that the brothers try out a livelier style — quite a sensible suggestion, considering how somnambulant their latest album turned out — and that they did, on songs like ʽDown The Roadʼ and ʽHeavy Breathingʼ that sound absolutely nothing like their subsequent slick disco productions.
ʽHeavy Breathingʼ, in particular, is a fairly gritty slice of funk-pop, with acid wah-wah riffage, roaring vocals from Barry, kickass soloing from Alan Kendall, and a masterfully engineered paranoid atmosphere — the title has more to do with suspense movies than sexual enticement. According to rumors, they could extend the song to a 14-minute length when they took it on their 1974 tour, and it could probably live up to such a treatment: the concocted groove is perfect for an extended funk jam if you got the energy and talent to carry it out. ʽDown The Roadʼ is sunnier and poppier, but still sounds like a perfectly authentic, and catchy, R&B number.
However, these moments of ruckus and rumpus are exceptions rather than the rule — for the most part, the band still sticks to balladry, and Mardin is perfectly willing to help them out with that, too, by restoring at least some chunks of the power that they had lost when they parted ways with Bill Shepherd. In particular, he helps Barry out with the best Elton John / Bernie Taupin song that Elton John and Bernie Taupin never wrote — ʽDogsʼ, a sweeping, anthemic ballad bursting with majesty and grandiosity even if you can never tell what that majesty is all about. The resolution leading from the bridge (one part of the song that actually sounds more like ABBA than Elton John) to the "are you following me just like Moses to the sea..." chorus may simply be one of the most emotionally rewarding bits in Bee Gees history — one of those «musical doors opening the way into ʽsomethingʼ» that truly makes a great artist.
And there are at least two other «great moments in Bee Gees history» here. One is when ʽVoicesʼ, which begins as an unassuming, barely noticeable acoustic Robin ballad, starts picking up rhythm one minute into the song, and then, out of the blue, at 1:32 into the song this shrieking wah-wah lead from Kendall crawls out of its cave, «awakened» by Robin's vocals — upon which, there is no turning back, and the song just strolls on forward in an imminent crescendo of strings, Mellotrons, and near-psychedelic, «submerged» falsetto wah-wahs in the background ("sweet voices calling wild" indeed!).
The second, slightly more conventional, moment is Robin's tour-de-force on the title track — the vocal tapestry as woven from the first quiet notes of the verse and to the stormy, up-and-down waves of the chorus should rank among the most complex and catchy in Bee Gees history, and suits Robin's vibrato so perfectly that it is one of those rare, if not unique, cases where I wish that Barry had not taken up the second verse and skewed the «frailty» mode of the song. In any case, Robin has the upper hand, being the hero of the chorus as he cuts through with that unbelievably smooth pitch-lowering on the "smile on my face and I'm tryyy-yyy-yyying" vibrato bit — but the song is not just a technical triumph, it is a perfect hit at combining the brothers' vulnerable sentimentality with a strong rhythmic beat and an impressive dynamic development.
Of course, Mr. Natural is not «perfect». Transitional as it was, the Bee Gees still could not refrain from including some cotton-candy for their loyal «bored housewife» audiences — ʽCharadeʼ, in particular, is as misleading an introduction into this album as could ever have been (regardless of the actual qualities of the songs, just imagine a Beatles album with ʽHere, There And Everywhereʼ as the lead-in track!), and ʽHad A Lot Of Love Last Nightʼ is as anti-climactic a conclusion to this album as could have been after the thunder of ʽHeavy Breathingʼ (one can understand the wish to smooth out the ending, but not that smooth, Barry, please!). A couple other songs seem rather underwritten, although ʽThrow A Pennyʼ at least could pass for a minor folk-pop gem — cute catchy chorus and all.
But that is not the point. The point is that this album, in my humble opinion, deserved all the popular acclaim it could get — yet it happened to flop as miserably as anything, and this ensured that, when next year ʽJive Talkin'ʼ was sent to the top of the charts, the Bee Gees would forever say goodbye to this stylistics, believing it obsolete and inviable. Silly, crazy people! This astute combination of the band's art-pop legacy, rootsy inclinations, and gritty, guitar-dependent funk was the most viable approach they could develop in mid-1970s America — and I have no doubt whatsoever that, with time, when all the Saturday Night Fever nostalgia has died out, the few remaining people still willing to explore their roots will find themselves coming back to Mr. Natural much more often than the slick and sterile dance fodder that came in its wake.
For now, all I can do is gratefully forgive the occasional lapses and flaws of Mr. Natural and back-congratulate the Gibbs and Mr. Mardin on a job well done — an album that is at the same time a farewell to the old Bee Gees of the «ruffled shirts age» and a welcome to the new Bee Gees of the «bare chest» age. A unique, yet perfectly working synthesis, and a great big thumbs up, of course. Next time around, the bare chest would emerge completely victorious, and things would never be the same.
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