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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Bee Gees: Spirits Having Flown


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" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Spirits Having Flown" (MP3) on Amazon

10 comments:

  1. The good thing about the two hits from this album - Too much Heaven and Tragedy - is that even the Bee Gees couldn't sink lower than on SNF - or perhaps I just had run out of hate. They don't offend me as much. The other good thing is that Tragedy was the Bee Gees last major hit in The Netherlands for 8 years. In 1987 I only was listening to the radio for classical music, so I happily have missed all the rest of their career.
    Alas I missed Metallica too, until 1990.

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  2. To sum this (and lots of the former) crap up:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-gZKRKNy4w

    Nuff said.

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  3. Spirits Having Flown is one of the best love songs ever - and one of the best performances. The emotion in these songs is incredible. The depth not so much, but then, is even Bob Dylan really that deep?

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    1. "The emotion in these songs is incredible."

      yeah, because when i think of "emotion" i think of that fucking falsetto.

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  4. This album is horrid. If they wanted to be taken seriously, they needed to kill the falsetto. I was surprised Alvin and the Chipmunks didn't sue them for stealing their singing voices.

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  5. People who have actually listened to 1981's Living Eyes LP from front-to-back tend to concur that it's one of their best albums. I think it's their strongest since Bee Gees' 1st. One track, "He's a Liar", presages Hi-NRG by a few years. It's ironic how in 1977 they were playing music that would sound awfully dated within four-year's time, yet by 1981 they were playing music that was four years ahead of its time.

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  6. I never cease to be amazed at the sheer number of albums recorded by some of these acts that clearly should have called it quits much earlier in their careers. The Bee Gees aren't even the worst of the lot.

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  7. I've never heard this album. But its terrible album cover has always bugged me. Who thought a fuzzy red blotch obscuring a third of the image would make for good album art? That, and the band looks totally stoned.

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  8. Ah HA. I've finally figured out your problem, George, reading this review. (This is going to be a rather long comment, so forgive me if it rambles.) Namely:

    You appear to treat most music accordingly to strict chronological order.

    Though that’s an understandable problem to have, it's still a problem by my standards. Because it means everything a band does, in your eye, is tainted/colored/irreparably changed in sound, purpose, enjoyability, and both written and unwritten worth, by what came before it--and much worse, what surrounds it.

    It’s a fine theory, don’t get me wrong. But the greater number of music, even good music, does not work this way in practice, no matter how much we like to hope otherwise. Granted, some musicians do make an honest effort to orient their creative process to fit this theory—Black Francis is an infamous case in point, and has been known to lecture his producers on “how Buddy Holly would have done it”, among other things. But he is an exception that proves the rule. I guarantee you, for every band that was inspired by Nirvana and/or Soundgarden, only about one out of four have ever heard of the Pixies or the Stooges. And if they did, rightly or wrongly, their response will usually be, quite bluntly, "What the heck is that crap?"

    Almost none of them care a whit whether they reside on the "first wave", the "second wave", or the "crap wave" of a movement (the Beegees, admittedly, were probably in the last category in 1979). May be unfair. But the musical world does not generally fret about where they fit in on the grand scheme of things (excepting extreme circumstances, like, say, Oasis vis-a-vis the Beatles). Save whether they succeed in their aims.

    Why do I say this? Because I came to this album fresh. I had heard a good portion of the Beegees' Sixties output, mind you, but I had not--and have not--sat through either the Main Course album or the SNF soundtrack. (Excepting the inescapable hit singles, of course.)

    So the complaints you have toward this album--which appear to mainly revolve around arguments like "they're stagnating compared to two years ago", "their creativity is a pale shadow of 1975" and "whatever happened to the guilty pleasure of 'their work on the soundtrack'" are likely wasted on anyone who isn’t familiar with said background material, their potential validity notwithstanding. This is the first cheesy gooey Seventies prom-pop I've heard since I accidentally clicked on a Lite FM station last month, and the first actual CD of the genre I've bought since purchasing a latter-period ELO album. It's not prime Funkadelic or anything, but there is much, much more memorable craft on this album than I was expecting, particularly after reading your review ahead of time. (Specifically, tracks 1, 2, 6, 8, and 9 seem rather locked in my skull right now, to my coworkers' amusement. For some reason, track 3, which was apparently a number one hit, does not. Must have been a flash-in-the-pan.)

    Perhaps it's craft of an "inadequate" flavour. Perhaps its memorability is of a "bad" type if it comes right after hearing the relatively grittier beats and melodies of its chronological predecessor. Perhaps if my memory was primed by the relatively upbeat (and more culturally legendary) disco fiesta of their immediately previous work, or of their reportedly more musically diverse output of 1975, I would have my expectations dashed, and my opinion accordingly altered. As it is, I have no expectations, beyond the generic Seventies cheesy-pop ones. In combination with the above track nods, I therefore have no complaints.

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  9. Some on-the-other-hand thoughts:

    To be sure, it’s certainly a possibility that your review actually triggered the same phenomenon in reverse on me. Perhaps my memory, or lack thereof, was “primed” by your advance claim that this would be a stagnation-fest of limp hooks, no melodies, and no emotional depth. Therefore my “dashed” expectations may be elevating my rating of the album much higher than I ordinarily would have put it. Or maybe I just have a bad pre-impression of stinky Seventies bell-bottom prom-pop, and any group with a relatively filler-less album and a sense of craft impresses me. Whatever works.

    I will drop the subject soon, but one last question needs to be asked: why do I lambast strict chronological order this way, in defiance of what you would likely consider good sense and simple taste?

    Well, I recently tried an experiment. Namely, I tried to do what you seem to do, and listened to all the classic Sixties albums I have (Sgt. Pepper, Velvet Underground, Beggars Banquet, etc.) in more-or-less chronological order, attempting to gain new insights into the revolutionary qualities of the music, year by year.

    I did garner some interesting revelations. For example, I discovered that Highway 61 was even more out-of-the-blue revolutionary than it seems from the vantage point of today--seriously, there's nothing even remotely in its ball park in August 1965. Also, 1969 was chiefly a year of profound cultural sadness, a quality of its music that's not always audible hearing it on the radio sandwiched between other classic rock like Nazareth and Supertramp. Also, even if the Beatles weren't your favorite band in their early or middle years, they had to be--absolutely had to be--by late 1968. By then, they actually COULD do anything, to an even greater extent than was the case circa Revolver.

    But alas, there was also one revelation of a more negative variety. Specifically, the music sounded. . . somehow, more BORING in chronological order. Far, far more boring.

    Take, for example, King Crimson’s debut. Sounds great when played back to back with most other music, right? Put it back into chronological order, and. . . with a few exceptions, it sounds actually. . . safe. Predictable. Challenging to an extent, but not all THAT challenging. And the same goes, with rare exceptions, for Paul McCartney, Nick Drake, or anyone else of that fertile, fertile period in pop history.

    It gives me almost the exact same impression I get when I’m forced to listen to a few hours of modern pop in a row. Namely, Give Me Something New.

    Honestly? I think that’s the phenomenon at work here. When you put Spirits Having Flown on the turntable (aka Spotify playlist), you were looking for something that gave you something very, very new. Or at least pushed forward what you considered good about the previous two hit albums, and eschewed what you considered smelly.

    To someone fresh, it sounds fresh. To someone already saturated in disco cheese and soft-focused yellow shades, it sounds every bit as stinky as all of that. That really is, I think, all it amounts to.

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