THE BYRDS: YOUNGER THAN YESTERDAY (1967)
1) So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star; 2) Have You Seen Her Face; 3) C.T.A.-102; 4) Renaissance Fair; 5) Time Between; 6) Everybody's Been Burned; 7) Thoughts And Words; 8) Mind Gardens; 9) My Back Pages; 10) The Girl With No Name; 11) Why.
Although this album (actually recorded at the end of 1966 — still in the «Revolver era» rather than the much-mutated «Sgt. Pepper era») is very frequently listed as the pinnacle of the Byrds' career, I have always belonged to the small minority that regards it as a tiny step down from the heights of Fifth Dimension — at least in terms of innovation and diversity, if not overall song quality. Where Fifth Dimension, with all its minor faults, broke The Byrds out of the eggshell of their early formula and opened them to the many ways of the world, on Younger Than Yesterday you can sort of see the beginnings (only the beginnings) of their retreading back to a slightly different, but still monolithic eggshell. At the very same time, you also see signs of serious tension between band members that ultimately led to the band's enclosing itself in a rigid niche, and then simply disintegrating because nobody cared any more.
If these sound like undeservedly harsh words for an introduction to a great album, let me stress that the idea is not so much to defame Younger Than Yesterday as it is to restore justice for Fifth Dimension. My only concrete problem (as opposed to the abstract construction of an idealistic «progress curve») with this record is one song and one song only, and yes, you guessed right: David Crosby strikes again! Last time around, it was the clumsy arrangement and the exaggerated vocal antics on ʽHey Joeʼ — this time, it is ʽMind Gardensʼ, unquestionably the worst track ever that classic-era Byrds put on tape. In fact, it was one of those ʽRevolution #9ʼ-type moments, where everybody except the contributing artist hated the track, but did not have enough willpower to veto its inclusion.
Crosby himself later argued that the hatred was simply due to backwardness — that his bandmates were appalled about including something that did not have either rhyme or rhythm — but, of course, this is just a bunch of crapola; in fact, Crosby himself would later come up with plenty of far, far better compositions that had neither rhyme nor rhythm, but compensated for this with beautiful atmospherics. ʽMind Gardensʼ, however, sounds like something where the overriding itch was to compose, record, and release a track without rhyme or rhythm, period. (Actually, the underlying guitar melody does have plenty of rhythm, to be precise — it's just not a very interesting guitar melody, and David largely referred to the vocals, of course). The lyrics, which sound like they were largely influenced by Oscar Wilde's Selfish Giant (yet still find a clichéd opportunity to throw in a reference to "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune", just for kicks), are almost intentionally primitive in their psychedelic-moralistic imagery; the singing is annoyingly shamanistic and shows that Cros never properly finished his crash course in tribal incantations; and worst of all, very soon you find yourself surrounded by a swarm of discordant backward guitar solos that make the whole experience physically painful (there is an alternate version among the bonus tracks of the CD reissue that seriously tones down this hideous buzz, but still does not completely resolve the problem). Basically, the only kind words I have to say about this monstrosity is that it makes the following ʽMy Back Pagesʼ sound twice as angelic by contrast.
All the more curious is the fact that, outside of ʽMind Gardensʼ, the remainder of Crosby's contributions for this record are fairly nice — ʽEverybody's Been Burnedʼ is a beautiful three-minute long introspection on the matter of broken relationships, with two somber minor key guitar parts weaving around each other and a perfectly melancholic vocal serenade from David himself. (The song is said to have been written as early as 1962, but I guess its «torch song» genre characteristics and the lack of a proper chorus could not help but delay its release); and ʽRenaissance Fairʼ, inspired by an actual trip to the original South Californian Renaissance Fair, is one of Crosby's catchiest compositions — based on a real riff, for once, if not a particularly inventive one; its starry-eyed refrain of "I think that maybe I'm dreaming..." should count as one of the most trend-defining, uh, starry-eyed magical moments of 1967, especially in its retro-futuristic perception of Elizabethan decor as suitable garb for the new psychedelic era.
At the same time with Crosby reaching his songwriting peak (even if it does result in a few excesses), we also have Chris Hillman emerging as a distinct songwriter in his own right — and pulling the band in a completely different direction: the country-rock style. ʽTime Betweenʼ and ʽThe Girl With No Nameʼ, with their steel guitars, banjo-imitating guitars, and perky tempos, are two prime examples of the Byrds' early venturing into hillbilly territory, and, honestly, sound like fairly generic country to me (I do actually prefer the Beatles doing ʽWhat Goes Onʼ — they have Ringo singing on it, and it's kinda funny). However, Hillman is able to do better than that: ʽHave You Seen Her Faceʼ is a fine slice of jangly pop (the intro alone sounds like a blueprint to a good half of Big Star's career), and the sleeping masterpiece here is ʽThoughts And Wordsʼ, which somehow manages to combine both the country-rock and the art-pop idioms, throwing in a moody psychedelic hum effect — it's like the Byrds' ʽThings We Said Todayʼ multiplied by the trippy production values of Revolver. On this song, the backward guitars actually work. See how they kick in as the second chorus starts up its "I knew what you wanted to do"... yep, you wanted to drive me nuts by jamming jagged shards of backward guitars in my ears. You don't spoil lovely melancholic music with brute ugliness unless you have a good reason, and Hillman at least pretends to have one — it's all about a lovely beginning and a rather brutal ending.
And we have not yet mentioned the McGuinn/Hillman lead-off ʽSo You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Starʼ, one of the first and bitterest sarcastic takes on rock stardom by rock stars themselves; or the sci-fi noises on ʽC.T.A.-102ʼ, a more than respectable successor to ʽThe Lear Jet Songʼ; or the new re-recording of Crosby's ʽWhyʼ, released earlier as a single and now sounding very much like Martha & The Vandellas' ʽHeatwaveʼ because we can; or ʽMy Back Pagesʼ, which tends to get my vote as the band's second best Dylan cover (and this time, they actually have enough space to cover four out of six original verses) — McGuinn's vocals are not always capable of capturing, let alone expanding upon, the magic of the original, particularly when they cover humorous or battle-oriented songs, but «Dylan the transcendental visionary» always comes off fine, and rarely, if ever, finer than on these "crimson flames tied through my years"...
And it all happens within an almost embarrassing twenty-nine minutes — in 29 minutes here, these guys say more than most modern bands say in 10 years. Amazing how fast things were really moving back in 1967, isn't it? (The bonus tracks aren't particularly phenomenal this time, but they do include ʽLady Friendʼ, the last substantial Crosby-penned single they released, and a couple more early excursions into country-rock with Hillman). Although, supposedly, this still has something to do with the conservative peculiarities of the American LP market, which rarely thought its customers worth more than 30 minutes of music per vinyl chunk. (Unless your artist was Dylan, who just couldn't shut up — ironically, though also predictably, Bob would begin releasing his own under-30-minute albums exactly at a time when this restriction was finally and completely lifted).
So where, if you might ask, are those «retreading» signs that I mentioned earlier? Well, essentially you see two main trends sometimes peacefully co-existing, sometimes battling here — Crosby's psychedelic vision and Hillman's «earthy» style, with McGuinn clearly more seduced about the latter than the former. Crosby would eventually lose, and for good reason — all these songs are really much more about solo Crosby than the Byrds as a band, far more so, in fact, than even John Lennon's latter-day Beatles material (more like as if Lennon were to offer songs like ʽMotherʼ or ʽGodʼ for Beatles albums). Hillman would win — and complete the Byrds' transformation into The Country Turf Preservation Society, which would still be a fairly pleasant society, to be sure, but quite far from the all-powerful eclectic deities of American rock that they were for a very brief period in 1966.
On a song-by-song basis, Younger Than Yesterday is as strong as anything else they did in their peak period — however, it does not have either a ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ or an ʽEight Miles Highʼ to symbolize a particular major breakthrough (ʽSo You Want To Be...ʼ comes somewhat close, with its send-up of the pop star image and Hugh Masekela on the trumpet, but does not exactly have the majesty of those two other singles), because there are no major breakthroughs here. Which, on a personal level, should not prevent anybody from simply enjoying the excellent music. Alternately, it may just be an intense hatred for ʽMind Gardensʼ that spoils and distorts my perception: honestly, I'd rather have Crosby re-recording ʽHey Joeʼ in a duet with Iggy Pop rather than having to listen to this atrocity, which I count among the same «1967 excesses» as the Animals' Winds Of Change, even one more time. Regardless, thumbs up are still guaranteed all the way — on the already overloaded shelf of classic records from that wonder year, Younger Than Yesterday will always have a secure place of honor.