THE BYRDS: THE NOTORIOUS BYRD BROTHERS (1968)
1) Artificial Energy; 2) Goin' Back; 3) Natural Harmony; 4) Draft Morning; 5) Wasn't Born To Follow; 6) Get To You; 7) Change Is Now; 8) Old John Robertson; 9) Tribal Gathering; 10) Dolphin's Smile; 11) Space Odyssey.
Although technically marked 1968, since it was released on January 15, the Byrds' fifth album still fully belongs in 1967 — on the whole, it is still far more «psychedelic», «baroque-poppy», and «experimental» than anything from the new back-to-roots era of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and beyond. It is also messy to the extreme, since the complete and irredeemable disintegration of the original Byrds took place right through the sessions — during which Crosby walked out, Michael Clarke walked in, Gene Clark came back, Michael Clarke walked out again, and Gene Clark walked out again, too. Not to mention dozens of sessions musicians walking in and out on a pay-per-hour basis. Or on just a good word.
Despite, or maybe thanks to all the turbulence, The Notorious Byrd Brothers has always fascinated the critical mind, and eventually turned into a «cult favorite» — people who think it too obvious to list Mr. Tambourine Man or Younger Than Yesterday as their favorite Byrds album often turn to this as an honorably elitist competitor. I am in no rush to join that chorus, though. It is true that this is really the last Byrds album where the band members are still trying to push their imagination to the limits, the last one where three different talents (McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman) compete with each other and feed on each other at the same time, the last one that explicitly rejects formula in favor of freedom. But it is not true that freedom is always preferable to formula — and The Notorious Byrd Brothers, in my opinion, could certainly benefit from a little more martial discipline than is on display.
It is somewhat telling that when it came to singles, the only track that was deemed qualifiable was a cover, and not even a Dylan cover, but their take on Goffin and King's ʽGoin' Backʼ, previously known mostly in Dusty Springfield's arrangement. It is a classic number, to be sure, but other than replacing the «adult pop» version with keyboards and strings with a janglier and more percussion-heavy pop-rock arrangement, the band does not truly unlock anything here that Dusty had not already unlocked — the nostalgic pull towards the past coupled with gentle optimism for the future, as reflected in the elegant key changes of the melody. Even if we call this the «definitive version» of the song (to me, though, that would rather be Carole King's own take on her creation on the Writer album), it is still a cover, and not a magically transformed one.
The band actually does much more with their second Goffin/King cover, ʽWasn't Born To Followʼ, which they saw as a fast-paced country-rock number (unlike Carole herself, who recorded it in a slow, gospel-tinged version in 1969, while still a member of «The City») — and it still did not prevent them from throwing in a few backward solos and put a heavy phasing effect on the instrumental passage, because, you know, playing straightforward country is kinda dull (an idea that had all but evaporated by the following year). However, even that song never truly goes beyond «cute» — maybe it's all because of the vocals, so cuddly and fragile and monotonous.
The rest of the album is all left to original material, but next to the songs on Younger Than Yesterday, these never seem to truly compete in terms of sharp, interesting ideas. Crosby, in particular, is beginning to value social importance over musical integrity. His ʽDraft Morningʼ, an anti-Vietnam rumination on the fate of a nameless soldier, has no discernible musical theme, and although the vocals were completed by McGuinn and Hillman already after he'd been fired, the vocal melody is more enjoyable due to the pure beauty of their silky tones than to the actual lines they're singing — not to mention the totally pro forma, unconvincing and disruptive «war sound effects» in the instrumental part; as far as anti-war songs like these go, give me The Doors' ʽUnknown Soldierʼ over this one any day. ʽTribal Gatheringʼ, inspired by yet another hippie caucasus, is too short and simplistic to justify the «aura of deep mystery» intention of the author, sounding more like hippie lounge muzak than something to actively attune your brain to. And although I distinctly remember that ʽDolphin's Smileʼ sounded fresh and sparkly, a nice tune to wake up to on a bright summer morning when you want to start your life anew, the whole thing was just too hazy and hookless to ever find a proper place in my memory.
Ironically, Crosby's best song at the time was not only considered too risky to put on the album, but, in fact, seriously contributed to his decision to leave the band — and donate the song to Jefferson Airplane. As sung by Grace Slick, the version of ʽTriadʼ is still the definitive one, but the one that The Byrds did, eventually released on CD as a bonus track, holds up fairly well, too. And it isn't merely its controversial subject matter — "going on as three" is a fairly uncomfortable notion even for 2015, although it is probably the next logical stage after gay rights — that makes it stand out, no; it has an excellent verse structure, with a double resolution of the vocal melody that, well, doubles the intrigue. There's a certain je ne sais quoi in that "...I don't really see why can't we go on as three" conclusion that almost makes you... you know... see the point and all. It's fairly disturbing and provocative on all fronts — no wonder that the nice country lads McGuinn and Hillman felt way too uncomfortable about something like that.
But what did they offer instead? Well, Hillman does write one of the album's best songs, ʽNatural Harmonyʼ, which goes against his country-rock reputation by actually sounding more like something Crosby would write — jazzy, trippy, and featuring heavy use of the Moog synth, still very much a rarity in late 1967; however, his collaboration with McGuinn on ʽChange Is Nowʼ I can appreciate only a formal level. It does this novel trick of putting together folk, drone, psychedelia, and even a fast country-western part, but none of the parts are interesting on their own, and putting them together just feels like an empty experiment.
McGuinn does shine on his own on the opener, ʽArtificial Energyʼ, largely due to the powerful, anthemic brass section (famed session musician Richard Hyde on trombone); but his ʽSpace Odysseyʼ, concluding the album, is definitely an acquired taste. If the idea of a slow four-minute folk ballad from the highlands, overdubbed with all sorts of «deep space effects», instantaneously appeals to your cosmic cowboy psychology, you'll find it a masterpiece. Personally, I find it boring and tedious, a fairly dubious tribute to a fairly dubious piece of literature — and, for that matter, I also hold the opinion that of all Kubrick's movies, A Space Odyssey is also the one that has dated far more seriously than any other, let alone Arthur Clarke's prose.
All in all, maybe this entire album is very much an acquired taste, and one that I have lost all hope of acquiring. Nothing here is truly bad, with the exception of the last track, but the highs are lower than any previous highs, and other than the Goffin/King covers, there really isn't anything here that would unquestionably make it into my personal «best-of» collection. I still give the record a thumbs up out of respect — with the band in a state of near-collapse, it is amazing that they even had their minds set on experimentation and progress so much of the time — but let it also go on the official record that I continue not to share the hype, and generally like my Byrds when they are more polished and focused than when they are in a state of disarray.