BEE GEES: SPIRITS HAVING FLOWN (1979)
1) Tragedy; 2) Too Much Heaven; 3) Love You Inside Out; 4) Reaching Out; 5) Spirits (Having Flown); 6) Search, Find; 7) Stop (Think Again); 8) Living Together; 9) I'm Satisfied; 10) Until.
My original, rough-hewn review for this (in)famous follow-up to the Saturday Night Fever success might have been unnecessarily vicious — but the general opinion has not changed much: this album is not inspiring, not all that interesting, and definitely not fun at all. Considering how much time, thought, and effort had been invested in its preparation (and the Bee Gees took the responsibility of producing a follow-up to SNF very seriously), it is, at the very least, totally inadequate to all the pooled resources. In addition, I still think it sucks, but maybe that's just me.
According to what they say themselves, Barry and Co. were very keen on peeling off the «disco» label — even though, by the time they went back into the studio, the disco backlash had not yet hit all that hard, they already felt uneasy about being associated primarily with the disco movement. Which makes it all the more amazing that, even if formally there are no disco songs here (a maverick bassline does make a stray incursion on ʽLove You Inside Outʼ, but the exception only proves the rule), Spirits Having Flown still has the full feel of a disco album, and a pretty dull and disenchanted disco album at that. At least with Children Of The World, there was some sort of a discovery vibe going on — the musical toilet stall that they were entering was brand new and unused. But three years without a single cleaning? Too much, man.
The album supposedly yielded one pop classic, the lead single ʽTragedyʼ, which is respected even by the many detractors of disco-era Bee Gees — unfortunately, I cannot share the respect. It may have a (relatively) catchy verse-chorus structure, but it is a sort of catchiness that is emotionally emptier than even the catchiness of ʽNight Feverʼ. Because with ʽNight Feverʼ, Barry was able to capture the trivial, but realistic and even somewhat charmingly innocent spirit of the «nightclub atmosphere» — you may hate that language, but it has a language. ʽTragedyʼ, on the other hand, purporting to be a desperate lost-love anthem, has no emotional vibe whatsoever. Maybe it is because of the goddamn falsetto, relevant for the nightclub spirit, but not for any serious aspirations. Maybe it is because the galloping, dance-oriented tempo of the song thoroughly contradicts the very aspect of «tragedy». In any case, I simply cannot relate to it — and I can even relate to ABBA's disco stuff on Voulez-Vous, an album that is just as tightly screwed to the floorboards of its time but whose songs still have more personality and spirit than ʽTragedyʼ.
The ballads — ʽToo Much Heavenʼ, ʽReaching Outʼ, the excruciatingly slow, unbearable ʽStop (Think Again)ʼ, the part-accappella, part-elevator jazz smooth finale of ʽUntilʼ — are sappy artificial concoctions that are beyond discussion. The funk-pop, «who cares if it ain't disco», stuff like ʽLove You Inside Outʼ is melodically bland and instrumentally lethargic; ʽSearch, Findʼ is just a tad grittier, with a weak attempt to add a little menace and determination into the usually vulnerable falsetto, and is probably the best song on the album if we omit the issue of ʽTragedyʼ — but overall, that is not saying much.
Actually, maybe it is not ʽSearch, Findʼ, but the title track, after all, since the album's finest melodic invention — the little pastoral flute riff played by Herbie Mann — is found right there, and the song's repetitive two-minute coda is the only piece of the album that could even remotely be called «touching», without the suffocating plastic synthetic vibe of everything else. Apparently, this is where the spirits have really flown, what with their complete absence on the other tracks.
It's all predictable — you don't sell your soul to the devil for nothing, and now that you are coming back to your senses and start backing out of the deal, it suddenly turns out that there is really no going back. The disco years caused irreversible brain damage for the brothers — their songwriting and arranging skills genetically modified and twisted, they would no longer be able to return to the level of Mr. Natural. It does not help, either, that Barry still insists on singing most of the stuff in falsetto, or that the record is known for featuring the least amount of Robin's contributions on any Bee Gees album (he only sings lead on ʽLiving Togetherʼ, and even that one is a duet with Barry).
Of course, the album still sold well — riding the coattails of SNF, anything by the Bee Gees would have sold well in 1979, even a cover album of acoustic sea shanties; what is far more surprising for me is that it continues to enjoy some critical reputation, in sharp contrast to every other Bee Gees record released in the next two decades. Maybe the sales figures still suffice to dazzle the critics, or maybe it's a matter of subconscious nostalgia, or maybe ʽTragedyʼ is a great song and I am simply too rustic to perceive its depth and complexity. Be it as it may, in my world this record is a complete flop — thumbs down without further questioning.
Check "Spirits Having Flown" (MP3) on Amazon