BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: RIVER OF DREAMS (1997)
1) Back In The Game; 2) River Of Dreams; 3) Yesterday's Heroes; 4) Children Of The Disappeared; 5) Pools Of Tears; 6) Do You Believe In Dreams; 7) (Took Me) So Long; 8) Mr. E; 9) Three Weeks To Despair; 10) The Time Of Our Lives.
If you actually managed to stay with me here, all the way through that interminable string of «papcore» records getting duller and duller with each subsequent release... well, I wouldn't exactly call River Of Dreams, Lees' and Holroyd's last BJH collaboration, a «reward» for all that patience, but at the very least, it is a partial recompense. It was not intended to be a swan song for the band — but, luckily indeed, the guys managed to stay together long enough to not let the totally abysmal Caught In The Light close the book on Barclay James Harvest.
This, not its predecessor, is the real objective «comeback»: finally, somebody started paying attention to how far away the band had drifted from its mid-1970's sound into the territory of smooth-bland adult contemporary, and the record is a very conscious, very hard-working attempt to get back where it all... not «began», exactly, but where it had that relative balance between being «artistic» and «commercial». Not only are the guitars back in a big way, fighting back the synthesizer mush with renewed forces, but so is the «poor man's Moody Blues» / «poor man's Pink Floyd» / «poor man's Beatles» spirit, which seemed so pathetic back in the 1970s, compared to what was going on at the time, but, by the late 1980s, was so goddamn sorely missed as the band plummeted into «poor man's Phil Collins» territory.
Of course, subtlety was never a forte for the band — you could suspect something of the sort happening just by glancing at the song titles: ʽBack In The Gameʼ, ʽYesterday's Heroesʼ, ʽTook Me So Longʼ... And then there is all that musical legacy — the Harrison-esque slide guitar parts that open ʽDo You Believe In Dreamsʼ, the unflinching "let me take you down..." quotation on ʽMr. Eʼ, along with the psychedelic cellos, the Wall influence on ʽYesterday's Heroesʼ... but then again, without all these links, how could we call this a «comeback» in the first place? Barclay James Harvest used to make a living out of «plundering» everyone in sight — the quintessential «art-rock vultures», and now they're back with a flesh-ripping vengeance.
There is nothing «awesome» about these songs, and there probably could not be at this point, but there are almost no embarrassments, and the nostalgia is handled with care. ʽBack In The Gameʼ opens with a little chamber muzak, then enters energetic pop-rock mode with acoustic power chords backed by a permanently wailing electric part and multi-part harmonies — plenty of juicy stuff going on to excuse the expectedly trivial lyrics about "spirit of the 1970s live forever" etc.; and, what's more, it is written by Holroyd, who I'd already think had, by that time, completely forgotten how to write anything other than suave synth ballads. Lees follows with ʽRiver Of Dreamsʼ, an equally catchy «arena folk» song — not great, not awful, and vastly helped by being backed with ye olde electric organ rather than cheesy synth.
Later on, ʽYesterday's Heroesʼ gives us a rockier sound: the guitar tone is a bit rotten, like on those post-Waters Pink Floyd albums, but the main echoey riff shows inspiration. The main problem with the song, I think, is that Barclay James Harvest are too «happy» a band — at least, have been too happy a band ever since their reformating in the mid-1970s — to be able to plow the lower depths of depression and desperation: ʽYesterday's Heroesʼ somehow tries to convey the despairing realisation of being stuck in an endless wheel of fate, but the growling wobble of the song's main riff is as far as they can go about expressing that despair. Still, this is light years ahead of ʽSpud-U-Likeʼ, no question about that.
The album is not entirely free of Caught In The Light's nightmarish legacy: sooner or later, electronic sentimentality must take over, and it certainly does on Holroyd's ʽTook Me So Longʼ, an elevator ballad with no redeeming value, and on Lees' ʽPool Of Tearsʼ (glycerin ones, I suppose), riding on pure, and very boring, atmosphere. But these, I'm happy to say, form the minority among a generally acceptable bunch of songs that honestly try to get back to the source — they don't always manage to get there, but most of them are at least headed in the right direction. For that particular reason, I am inclined to mark the album with a very modest thumbs up, if only to indicate the huge «upwards» step in comparison to everything they did in the previous ten years, and to put a checkmark in the «finished career on a positive note?» box.
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