BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: TIME HONOURED GHOSTS (1975)
1) In My Life; 2) Sweet Jesus; 3) Titles; 4) Jonathon; 5) Beyond The Grave; 6) Song For You; 7) Hymn For The Children; 8) Moongirl; 9) One Night.
For this somewhat uninspired (very mildly speaking) sequel to Everyone Is Everybody Else, the band moved to a studio in San Francisco, and either the nice summer climate of California mollified their brains after the proverbial London rain and fog, or such was the overall decadent musical atmosphere of 1975 that the rotting process would have started in any case. The average song quality on Time Honoured Ghosts drops down another couple of notches — mainly because the band seems intent on purging out both the last drops of psychedelic influences, and its hard-rocking component at the same time (the presence of a few distorted riffs here and there notwithstanding, their collected crunch now never really rises above Crosby, Stills & Nash level). The melodic quotient still remains, but so does the narcissistic sentimentalism — and there is only so much heart-on-sleeve attitude that a tired old sense of perception can stand.
Moreover, it does not help that Lees continues to explore the gimmickry line, launched with ʽThe Great 1974 Mining Disasterʼ. This time, we are offered ʽTitlesʼ — a dreamy, more or less inoffensive mix of the California sound with the European art song, but rendered unlistenable by staying loyal to its name: the lyrics do indeed consist of little other than titles of Beatles songs, stringed together to form a ghostly Profound Message ("across the universe one after nine-o-nine, I've got a feeling for you blue and I feel fine"). Every artist may have his, her, their ups, downs, collapses, revivals, breakdowns, and comebacks, but this, unfortunately, is a kind of creativity reserved for artists with serious mutations in their taste buds — not only does it cast its cheesy shadow over the entire album, but it simply blocks my ability to take these guys seriously.
Once again, Lees and Holroyd share primary songwriting and singing duties, this time on a more or less equal basis, and now that the band is firmly rooted in soft rock territory, the styles of the two also begin to merge. Lees tries to set an intense atmosphere over the first seconds of the LP: ʽIn My Lifeʼ (another glaring nod to the Beatles, as if ʽTitlesʼ weren't enough) opens (and closes, after a rather dreary mid-section) as a fast melodic blues-rocker that probably has more energy than the rest of the album put together. The preachy lyrics are, as usual, quite off-putting ("But I was young, did not know, grace is for God, greed is to know"), but if the entire album had been relatively faithful to this style, instead of switching to unexciting acoustic foundations, slower tempos, and exaggeratedly soulful high-pitched vocals (from ʽSweet Jesusʼ and onwards), the band might have earned more respect from me. Instead, it just bores me one minute and offends me the next, and there is nothing I can do to myself to prevent those effects.
Every now and then, Holroyd's ʽMoongirlʼ on the second side is extolled as the album's definitive highlight, a magical-mystery art song where Sgt. Pepper-influenced guitars are integrated with Woolly's enchanting keyboard overdubs like never before or after. I probably would not mind, had the main chord progression and its key role in the song's coda not been so blatantly (with very minor changes) lifted from a far superior song — Eric Clapton's ʽLet It Growʼ, which already has more than everything that ʽMoongirlʼ has to offer.
In between this «contextual failure» of one of the album's suggested highlights and the embarrassing pretense of ʽTitlesʼ, the rest of Time Honoured Ghosts simply fails to attract this writer's attention or provoke any interesting comments. So I will finish by saying that, perhaps, the best song on the album is the sole contribution from Woolly — ʽBeyond The Graveʼ is yet another of those attempts to emulate the symphonic ambitiousness of early XXth century music (from Mahler to Strauss), this time carried out with surprisingly few overdubs and practically no guitar at all: organs, synthesized strings, and choral harmonies do all the job instead. The «poor man's majestic effect» is there all right, although I would have honestly preferred that the song remain completely instrumental — not only are the vocals needlessly delivered in plaintive Procol Harum mode, but the lyrics, as usual, are beyond contempt ("we will survive beyond the grave, and as we sleep we will be saved, life in its essence will endure while still on earth we can be sure" — we can take stuff like that from Black Sabbath, perhaps, but hardly in a song that pretends to draw its inspiration from academic styles of music).
So, although it would still take a long time to reach the genuine creative nadir for these guys, Time Honoured Ghosts is the first BJH album to which I could not possibly react with a thumbs up even if a swarm of professional musicologists were to prove that each of the songs features a variety of subtle, previously unheard of musical ideas. Mushy, unmemorable, preachy, gimmicky, downplaying the band's strengths and extolling their weaknesses, it is not a «catastrophe» — it is a «failure», which is even worse, because catastrophes can at least be curious and amusing. Well, check out ʽTitlesʼ, perhaps, for such curiosity's sakes, then join me in my thumbs down if you, too, do not react so lightly to taking the name of the Lord thy God in vain.