THE BYRDS: FIFTH DIMENSION (1966)
1) 5D (Fifth Dimension); 2) Wild Mountain Thyme; 3) Mr. Spaceman; 4) I See You; 5) What's Happening; 6) I Come And Stand At Every Door; 7) Eight Miles High; 8) Hey Joe; 9) Captain Soul; 10) John Riley; 11) 2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song).
For some reason, the general critical consensus seems to have had a bone with the Byrds' third album from the very beginning, and even today it is usually described as an «uneven», «transitional» record that lacks both the freshness and inspiration of their first two efforts and the art-pop perfection of Younger Than Yesterday. I have never seen it that way myself — not only am I still enjoying the absolute majority of the tunes here, but in a way, Fifth Dimension is the Byrds album for me: that one collection of musical ideas where they really showed the world that they could not only invent a successful musical formula, but they could also transcend it, and participate in the «great progressive race» of the mid-Sixties along with the best of 'em. This is their Revolver, if you wish, and it actually came out before Revolver, so there.
The high quality of the music is all the more astounding considering that it was recorded in the wake of the band's first (but far from the last) great cataclysm — the departure of Gene Clark due, among other things, to his fear of flying (as a mocking parting gift, this is reflected in the band's decision to finish the record with ʽThe Lear Jet Songʼ). His only contribution, ironically, is yet another song about the strangeness of flying (ʽEight Miles Highʼ), with McGuinn and Crosby both taking additional credits, even if no one really knows how justified that was (well, I guess at least McGuinn deserves plenty of credit for the famous guitar solo). This explains the continuing high ratio of cover material — but the covers are mostly good, and beyond that, Clark's departure did stimulate McGuinn and Crosby to develop their own songwriting talents.
Most importantly, though, Fifth Dimension simultaneously takes The Byrds in more directions (dimensions?) than any other of their albums. Word of the day is diversity, as if they themselves looked back in horror at the clonish nature of Turn! Turn! Turn! and said, «if we go on this way, we'll never catch up with them Beatles», and now they are firing all the cannons at once. There's still some of the old trusty jingle-jangle folk-rock vibe, of course (title track; ʽI Come And Stand At Every Doorʼ), but there's also lushly orchestrated art-pop (ʽWild Mountain Thymeʼ), psychedelic rock with jazz and Indian influences (ʽEight Miles Highʼ, ʽI See Youʼ), speedy, catchy, quirky country-pop (ʽMr. Spacemanʼ), Booker T.-influenced R&B with jagged edges (ʽCaptain Soulʼ), and even a pre-Hendrix version of ʽHey Joeʼ so that they could always say that they were first, and pout their lips to the max.
You could join the chorus of disappointed grunts and point out individual problems with these songs — the sound is too thin, the grooves are too repetitive, Crosby overacts like an idiot while singing ʽHey Joeʼ — but instead of picking at minutiae, I recommend simply embracing this universe as a whole, and getting the most of it. See Jim McGuinn invent the motif of the «space cowboy» with ʽMr. Spacemanʼ, a song that sounds as if it should have been a hit for Buck Owens, but is actually a ten-years-early theme for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind! Watch him set a poem by Nâzım Hikmet to a morbidly slow-waltzing theme and reimagine the lyrics as coming from the ghost mouth of a 7-year old victim of Hiroshima! Revel in the wind-gusty string swoops of ʽWild Mountain Thymeʼ as they smash into the guitar jingle-jangle that bravely withstands each new assault! And look, David Crosby can actually write a song that has a steady, fast rhythm and a catchy vocal melody to go along with the famous «lost in time and space, and loving it» Crosby vibe. Even Yes would admire it to the point of covering the song on their first album — something they'd probably never dream of doing over the likes of ʽAlmost Cut My Hairʼ.
It is probably the towering awesomeness of ʽEight Miles Highʼ — eight-mile towering, right? — that forms this impression that the entire album is centered around one song, and everything else is just filler in comparison. (Much the same way people like to dismiss Sgt. Pepper as an album that really only has one great song on it — you know which one). Naturally, ʽEight Miles Highʼ is a classic and a milestone: with its Indian raga and Coltrane influences, it invents The Velvet Underground before there was a proper Velvet Underground, and the combined effect of hard-rocking rhythm guitars, droning leads, and stratospheric lyrics unequivocally makes this one of the defining tracks of 1966, along with ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ (a song that seems to pursue much the same goals, albeit in a totally different manner). However, it is just because the song's innovative gamble is thrust straight in your face here — the tasks that are accomplished on the other songs are more subtle and humble, and may take a little time to appreciate.
I even hold a high opinion on ʽCaptain Soulʼ, a jammy blues-rock instrumental that should not normally be associated with the likes of The Byrds — but I've always admired the energy level on it, as two lead guitars and one wailing harmonica compete for attention like a trio of brawny, unrestrained kids. Were this a real Booker T. & The M.G.'s jam, they would only let one instrument solo at a time, and the solo would be all restrained and dignified and potentially quite boring. These guys, on the other hand, make it feel like a garage happening — all the more exciting coming from a bunch of «softies»... in a way, you can almost feel the seeds of the classic Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young live electric jams planted on this track, or at least understand why Stills and Young even bothered letting ol' Cros' in on their little games.
Of course, Crosby can be a weak link at times — the band's version of ʽHey Joeʼ is dramatically overwrought and rushed, never even hoping to be as doom-laden and imposing as the Hendrix cover; and ʽWhat's Happening?!?!ʼ already goes over the top with psychedelic «Indian» guitars, a process that would reach rather an ugly culmination on next year's ʽMind Gardensʼ. But even so, ʽWhat's Happening?!?!ʼ is hardly worse than, say, any random Love track from 1966-67, and at this point, Crosby is still conservatively writing structured songs rather than impressionist fantasies which would eventually become his primary, if not only, style of writing. Moreover, he had not yet grown his walrus moustache yet, so there's really no need to worry.
Maybe a few of the idealistic / psychedelic touches here have dated rather poorly — particularly the lyrics of the title track, with its clichéd references to "my two dimensional boundaries" and "scientific delirium madness" — but only a few, and they are no more than cute bookmarks of a time when child-like earnestness in popular music could be a source for inspiration rather than immediate derision. In their own way, The Byrds were doing here the same thing that The Beach Boys were doing with Pet Sounds (I mean, if I already mentioned Revolver, it was only a matter of time before a reference to Pet Sounds would show up, right?), although their vision was more expansionist and «macrocosmic» at the time — even boy-girl relations are seen here as requiring the mediation of an extra dimension. After all, what kind of square loser would want to have sex in 1966 without the added benefit of certain chemical substances?..
Even the bonus tracks on the CD release are excellent — an early version of the dreamy pop rocker ʽWhy?ʼ, an electric pop reimagining of the traditional ʽI Know My Riderʼ with a riff that sounds suspiciously similar to the Beatles' ʽDr. Robertʼ, and Crosby's talking psychedelic blues ʽPsychodrama Cityʼ with another bunch of those messy, chaotic, avant-jazz solos. But why is that final track dubbed as an «instrumental» version of ʽJohn Rileyʼ? It sounds nothing like ʽJohn Rileyʼ. Just a fast groove with even more jazzy guitar playing. (Could have been a nice move, though, if it were spliced with the actual ʽJohn Rileyʼ, speeding and jazzifying it up after three original minutes of electrofolk prettiness).
As far as I'm concerned, Fifth Dimension is the ultimate Byrds experience — not a «perfect» album (the Byrds don't have a perfect album), but one that gives you everything they could do well, shows you how much of a vision they had, and never ever creates the impression of this band as a one-trick pony. Diehard fans of the jingle-jangle, who think the band lost its strength as long as it stayed away from the jingle-jangle, will indeed prefer 1965 or 1967 to 1966; but those who really think that The Byrds are worthy of their own legend, and that in their prime they were able to rival the scope of The Beatles, at least in «mini-mode», will just have to agree that Fifth Dimension is really where it's at, and accept the significance of this particular thumbs up.