BE-BOP DELUXE: MODERN MUSIC (1976)
1) Orphans Of Babylon; 2) Twilight Capers; 3) Kiss Of Light; 4) The Bird Charmers Destiny; 5) The Gold At The End Of My Rainbow; 6) Bring Back The Spark; 7) Modern Music; 8) Dancing In The Moonlight (All Alone); 9) Honeymoon On Mars; 10) Lost In The Neon World; 11) Dance Of The Uncle Sam Humanoids; 12) Modern Music (reprise); 13) Forbidden Lovers; 14) Down On Terminal Street; 15) Make The Music Magic.
Even more disciplined and «song-oriented» than Sunburst Finish — although one needn't get any false ideas about shifting the overall style by simply looking at the album cover: suits and ties they may be sporting, but the hair is still fairly long, and even the word «modern» in the album title does not necessarily mean «New Wave», «punk», «reggae», «electronica», etc. For now, only one concession is being made, albeit a serious one: Modern Music shows serious quotas introduced on «guitar wizardry». For the first time ever, Nelson intentionally refuses to stretch out with heroic solo passages on any of the tracks — which is why most of them are so unusually short — and concentrates on songwriting and atmosphere rather than dazzling technique.
In fact, he might even be concentrating a bit too hard. The final version of the record has 15 tracks instead of the usual 10, and, although some of these are represented by very brief musical «links», the general feeling is that there is too much going on. Some of the songs are genuinely meaningful and evocative, but on the whole, Nelson is not a master songwriter, and when he suddenly sets himself this challenge — to generate as many songwriting ideas as possible per one LP — it is probably inevitable that a large fraction of these ideas will not work, and those that will may get lost in the forest. And when I say «forest» with a negative connotation, I mean tracks like ʽHoneymoon On Marsʼ: big, pompous, Ziggy Stardust-age compositions, all echo and phasing and anthemic vocals and little in the way of interesting melodic concept. Unfortunately, there is a lot of such stuff here, and it has nothing to do with suits and ties, in fact, it almost sounds nostalgic in the context of 1976.
On the other hand, this is the album that also gave us ʽKiss Of Lightʼ — a conscious attempt, I think, at recreating the success of ʽSister Seagullʼ, since both songs are driven by a major hook in the form of a screechy, high-pitched guitar riff, and both are among the decade's finest brand of «burly romantic» arena-rock anthems, combining crowdpleasing potential with intelligence and craft. On paper, a crude start like "the woman of moon flew into my room last night" might make one cringe, but put it together with Bill's tricky shuffling of thick distorted riffage and liltingly clean melodic lines — and it works. Maybe because underneath all that romance, as the guitar and the vocals suggest, lies a thick layer of irony.
It is also not true that the pomp is never enjoyable. On ʽThe Gold At The End Of My Rainbowʼ, it most certainly is, since the anthemic chorus is so elegantly and conclusively shaped — and the song becomes a credible power ballad even without the power of the guitar solo. But in general, the most interesting moments of Modern Music are those where Nelson strays the farthest away from the already well-known formula: for instance, on the funk oddity ʽDance Of The Uncle Sam Humanoidsʼ, which, according to its title, should be about something anti-American, but, since it's instrumental, who can really tell (unless the occasional sound effects such as bullets whistling over your head count as implicit condemnations of Yankee violence). Or on ʽTwilight Capersʼ which, for no obvious reason, quotes the Dragnet theme out of the blue. Or on the title track which opens with a series of radio noises — including the listener tuning in, out of sheer accident, of course, on ʽAxe Victimʼ and ʽSister Seagullʼ — before turning into the album's most sentimental number, almost a prayer to the power of music on the radiowaves.
Actually, ʽModern Musicʼ is not entirely self-contained, but rather acts as an introduction (and, later on, as a reprised coda) to an Abbey Road-style futuristic mini-suite — the one that includes both boring (ʽHoneymoon On Marsʼ) and exciting (ʽUncle Sam Humanoidsʼ) parts. Presenting it all as «modern music» seems like a funny miscalculation: futuristic it may be in spirit, but on the whole, it is still way more old-school glam-rock than a foresight of the radically new things to come. But the idea of transition from lengthy, drawn-out space jams to these economic snippets, where Nelson's guitar forms the backbone of the song, but leaves out the fireworks, might be such a foresight — as if putting on that suit and tie was a symbolic gesture that also surmised imposing limits on Nelson's «sonic ego».
The bottomline is — it all depends on whether you have more love and respect for Bill as a player or for Bill as a songwriter. If one of your favorite Be-Bop Deluxe songs is ʽNo Trains To Heavenʼ, you will need to come to terms with Modern Music, and live with the fact that the end of 1976 was marked by imposing a heavy tax on guitar pyrotechnics. If, however, going against the grain of mainstream criticism, you find Nelson to be a great master of melody, Modern Music has every chance of becoming your favorite Be-Bop Deluxe album — good melodies or bad melodies, there is a lot of them here, and the old spirit, perhaps not as freely roaming as before, is still largely intact. Anyway, a thumbs up is still well guaranteed.
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