BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: GONE TO EARTH (1977)
1) Hymn; 2) Love Is Like A Violin; 3) Friend Of Mine; 4) Poor Man's Moody Blues; 5) Hard Hearted Woman; 6) Sea Of Tranquillity; 7) Spirit On The Water; 8) Leper's Song; 9) Taking Me Higher.
Well, this record is certainly memorable. From the «ambitions» point of view, it is a step back from the relative complexity of Octoberon — more songs on the whole, and more simple songs in particular, with «soothing repetitiveness» as one of the key factors that determine memorability. But there are some cool songwriting ideas here, and the soft-rock atmosphere is still resonating with echoes of Sixties' art-pop idealism, and the formula still works.
Ironically, the song that helped make Gone To Earth into «the» BJH album of all time (their biggest commercial success and the first pick of many a critic in retrospect) is... a joke song. Not only does ʽPoor Man's Moody Bluesʼ truly sound the way it is called, but John Lees actually designed it that way, as a slap-in-yer-face in the direction of many a reviewer who had previously derided the band as a cheaper imitation of who-do-you-think. Essentially, it is just one of those silly ideas — like ʽTitlesʼ — to tinker around with the old treasure chest. And, just like ʽTitlesʼ, it fails because it never really lets you know what it wants to be.
I mean, for somebody who has never heard ʽNights In White Satinʼ, ʽPoor Man's Moody Bluesʼ may be a stately, solemn, chivalrous love anthem rather than a senseless deconstruction of the original, subtracting most of its pluses (the inimitable Hayward vocals, the group harmonies, the flute solo, etc.) and offering nothing in return. For those of us who do know the original, this is, at best, a self-ironic statement, something like: «...so you thought we were all a poor man's Moody Blues? well, you couldn't be more wrong, because here is what a true poor man's Moody Blues really sounds like, and nothing that we did before is really that ridiculous!» But if such was the reasoning, it is doubly ironic how the song became a hit for the band, and ended up as a perennial favourite on their live setlist.
The other live highlight from the album is John's ʽHymnʼ, which can be easily mistaken for a loving retelling of the story of Jesus for kindergarten-age children, then correctly reinterpreted (with the aid of John himself, who would always clarify the interpretation in concert) as a warning for the simple folks not to use drugs as a means of attaining Godlike status. Then, finally, it becomes a Kansas-style moralization without the Kansas-style musicianship, and the final effect is — too much preachiness and pathos, but just not enough depth. Granted, it is hard to explain why something like ʽHymnʼ feels like pablum where something like George Harrison's ʽIsn't It A Pityʼ, largely designed according to the same rules, is genius — either George uses the more appropriate tonalities, or has more soul in his vocals, but the feeling is unmistakable, even if it may not be shared by everyone.
John gets more interesting on ʽLove Is Like A Violinʼ, where folk verses are integrated with upbeat, disco-wise (but not really disco) choruses with an elegant resolution — this time, the fluff manages to be charming; and on ʽLeper's Songʼ, which sounds sort of like Supertramp (in fact, it is not the only song on the album that sounds like Supertramp), but in this context, it is more of a compliment than anything else. (The lyrics are allegedly inspired by reading Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene — well, at least this beats ʽHymnʼ, which must have been inspired by «The New Testament For Preschool Conservatives»).
Holroyd's contributions are a little bouncier this time, and not all of them emphasize the sugar-and-spice, as it was on Octoberon: ʽFriend Of Mineʼ is catchy, if hardly original, Eaglish country-pop, ʽHard Hearted Womanʼ is a dark, mildly brooding, Eaglish country-rocker à la ʽWitchy Womanʼ, and ʽSpirit On The Waterʼ, breaking the tendency, is a clear attempt to emulate the Beach Boys circa Sunflower and Surf's Up — and, if you look past the ugly synthesizer tones, an almost successful one: at least the harmonies are pretty well arranged; although, truth be told, I wouldn't be surprised (and would be very amused) to see the song titled ʽPoor Man's Beach Boysʼ, just to complete the circle.
Meanwhile, Woolly, true to his nature, goes on with the ʽPoor Man's Gustav Mahlerʼ project, this time in the context of a space-age song, about being either lost in space or losing the space race or something like that — ʽSea Of Tranquillityʼ is no better and no worse than ʽRaʼ, a stately project carried out with some dignity, but in a completely predictable fashion, with the usual fanfares in their usual places. The man does know his Mahler and his Strauss — too bad that, cruelly reduced to one contribution per album, Woolly decided to stick exclusively to these pastiches; perhaps he thought that this was the best possible antidote he could offer to the excessive soft-poppiness of his bandmates, but it would certainly have been nice to see him try out other styles as well.
Altogether, the reasons why Gone To Earth has achieved such a «special» status in BJH history, other than the accidental popularity of ʽPoor Man's Moody Bluesʼ — I wonder if the success of that song could have played any part in the Moody Blues themselves reuniting the following year, recognizing how much they were still missed? — those reasons remain a mystery to me, because for those who perceive BJH as an «art» band, Octoberon would be a much better choice, and those who think of them as primarily soft-pop, light-fluff artists, have no reason to worry about album favourites in the first place. With the exception of ʽPoor Man's Moody Bluesʼ, a song that makes me feel very stupid every time I listen to it, Gone To Earth is pleasant, inoffensive, and, as I said, occasionally «hooky» and memorable, so a thumbs up it is, but in retrospect, it is hardly a high point for the band, and definitely not up to their classic early standards.