BEE GEES: E.S.P. (1987)
1) E.S.P.; 2) You Win Again; 3) Live Or Die (Hold Me Like A Child); 4) Giving Up The Ghost; 5) The Longest Night; 6) This Is Your Life; 7) Angela; 8) Overnight; 9) Crazy For Your Love; 10) Backtafunk; 11) E.S.P. (vocal reprise).
It is a very good thing for the world of music (I think) that, after the commercial failure of Living Eyes, the Bee Gees went into a six-year seclusion, at least, as a brotherly team — although they did briefly resurface with half a soundtrack to Stayin' Alive, an expected unnecessary sequel to Saturday Night Fever that nobody needs to either see or hear (ʽThe Woman In Youʼ was the single, a bland synth-rocker with none of the sleazy glamor of the Saturday Night singles). For the most part, they spent the mid-Eighties writing for other people — remember Diana Ross' Eaten Alive? No? Good.
It is a very bad thing for the world of music, though, that the Bee Gees eventually decided to go back to the studio before the Eighties were out. Now that they were under contract with Warner Bros., which had swallowed up Atlantic Records, they found out they could re-unite with Arif Mardin, and, apparently, they expected the magic of Mr. Natural and Main Course to strike out and reignite their careers. Problem is, no matter how professional or experienced, Arif Mardin was a straightforward guy — in 1974-75, he steered them towards commercial success by focusing on what was considered «hot» back in the day, and why would one expect him to have acted different in 1987? Electrofunk rhythms, programmed drums, synthesized bass, and elevator keyboards all the way, just exactly what the good doctor has prescribed.
Whether E.S.P. is or is not the worst Bee Gees album ever is questionable (it certainly has some competition from some of the records that would follow) — what seems unquestionable is that this album marks the band's transition into the last and saddest phase of their career: twenty years of total musical irrelevance when, not content with the simple status of an «oldies act», singing everything from ʽNew York Mining Disasterʼ to ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ before appreciatively glamorous Vegas crowds, the Bee Gees stubbornly went on to churn out record after record in strict accordance with «mainstream expectations». In other words, what they have become in 1987 is not so much a «synth-pop» act (at least real «synth-pop» is able to generate some bodily excitement, which is not the case here) as a strictly «adult contemporary» one.
And in the process, they have forgotten how to write songs. I mean, completely and utterly forgotten. This does not always happen with age: not a lot of artists could go from 14 near-perfectly written songs (as on 1st) to 10 pieces of totally meaningless triteness in twenty years (and I am not counting Rod Stewart, since he wrote very few of his own songs). But it happened with the Bee Gees — the band that used to produce vocal hooks, generate thrilling chords, and dress them up in luxurious arrangements, now seems to think that as long as their brotherly harmonies are still in place, everything else can be taken care of by session players and producers, or not be taken care of at all.
Occasionally, people praise ʽYou Win Againʼ, the album's lead single, as the only thing worthy of attention — some even call it a late period masterpiece. It does have an upbeat, memorable vocal melody, but the music is horrible, from the mock-industrial percussion intro to the flabby tinkling electronic keyboards. I could easily envision the vocal melody transplanted, safe and sound, into a healthier musical body (after all, Lindsey Buckingham did save the beauty of ʽBig Loveʼ, recorded that same year in a thoroughly dated synth cocoon, by later reinventing it as one of his greatest showpieces for acoustic guitar), but fact is, it seems to have never happened in reality — even much later live performances stick to the original horror.
And even so, ʽYou Win Againʼ is the only vocal melody on this record that generates decent emotions. Everything else is either generic stiff balladry (ʽLive Or Dieʼ, ʽAngelaʼ), or, much worse, mid-tempo dance-pop that tries to pass the brothers off as cool funksters who still know how to shake that ass like they knew in 1979. Problem: they had very little knowledge of that in 1979, and they have absolutely no knowledge of it in 1987 — I mean, ʽBacktafunkʼ, really? And what is the point of remembering all their disco hit song titles in ʽThis Is Your Lifeʼ if it is the same song that also features the line "more rap, less crap" (seriously!)?
Of course, plenty of people were deluded around the same time — it would be cruel to dismiss E.S.P. simply for its adherence to drum machines and synth loops. But even Phil Collins made better albums with the same ingredients. With all the previous styles that they had explored, the Bee Gees were able to sense at least the form, if not always the substance, and even if one finds the «message» of ʽNight Feverʼ disgusting, they found the perfect envelope to package it in. On E.S.P., behind the thick cardboard walls of its Excruciatingly Sonorant Production, there are no hints at all that the brothers were even mildly interested in exploring the potential of this new sound on their own — they just took whatever they were given, and ended up with a bunch of Exceptionally Stupid Pablum. For the record, no less than twenty people collaborated on the final mixes of the songs — just another good example of how much energy we waste in the modern world for obscure and dubious purposes. Thumbs down: now that the Eighties are viewed in the overall context of several decades before and after them, the most prudent solution is to regard this monstrosity as a particular aberration in Bee Gees history, and not look back at it any more.
Check "E.S.P." (MP3) on Amazon