THE BYRDS: TURN! TURN! TURN! (1965)
1) Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season); 2) It Won't Be Wrong; 3) Set You Free This Time; 4) Lay Down Your Weary Tune; 5) He Was A Friend Of Mine; 6) The World Turns All Around Her; 7) Satisfied Mind; 8) If You're Gone; 9) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 10) Wait And See; 11) Oh! Susannah.
The Byrds' second album is a classic example of «the sophomore slump» — rushing somewhat prematurely back into the comforts of the recording studio to capitalize upon the success of Mr. Tambourine Man, they had not the time, strength, or will to think about «where do we go from here?», and ended up with what is essentially a weaker twin brother of the debut. More Dylan; more covers; older songs from the bottom of the barrel; no creative advances whatsoever — if this band were of a slightly lesser caliber, the album would have been a resounding suckjob. Fortunately, even a subpar Byrds album circa 1965 was still a Byrds album.
If there is one single defining difference, it is that this record is far more objectively «folk-rock» than its predecessor. There are only two Dylan covers this time (another one, ʽIt's All Over Now Baby Blueʼ, was also recorded, but ultimately rejected), and all the included covers are, one way or another, «traditional» (in fact, I almost forgot initially that ʽLay Down Your Weary Tuneʼ was also a Dylan song — considering how it was directly influenced by some Scottish ballad). This is not necessarily a good thing — it means that, for a while at least, The Byrds were only too happy to fit in the image created for them by the musical press, and conform to stereotypes where their major idol, Mr. Zimmerman, would be only too happy to break them. Then again, it is easy to forget that even Mr. Zimmerman had to play his cards with care in the early years, and that his post-breakthrough album (The Times They Are A-Changin') was even more stereotypical than Turn! Turn! Turn!; so who could blame these lads? It takes some financial and public image stability to grow some clout.
Anyway, the real problem is not that this is «too much folk rock», but that there are no obvious standouts — the album flows smoothly and steadily, consistently pretty and engaging to a degree, but hardly cathartic or mind-blowing. The title track is the only one that has endured as a radio classic, due to its high ambitiousness — a folk-rock anthem for peace with connections to Pete Seeger and Ecclesiastes is, after all, no laughing matter, and it became the band's second and last #1 hit on the charts, not to mention King Solomon's greatest moment of glory. But I have never liked it as much as ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ — the Byrds instinctively understood the seduction powers of the latter, and used their harmonic gift to bring them out in full, whereas ʽTurn! Turn! Turn!ʼ is a sermon that lacks intimacy, and though the verse melody ("a time to be born, a time to die...") is harmonious and formally beautiful, it does not connect on that deepest of deepest possible levels. It's also overlong. Four minutes? Why wasn't ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ four minutes? They could have included a whole other verse!
It is, however, observable that Gene Clark is maturing as a songwriter. Not deviating from the folk rock formula, he contributes three tunes that all go a step or two beyond the still relatively simplistic pop numbers on Mr. Tambourine Man. ʽThe World Turns All Around Herʼ is melodically and lyrically more complex than ʽI'll Feel A Whole Lot Betterʼ, to which it could be considered a logical and ironic sequel (as the protagonist finds that, curious as it is, he is not feeling a whole lot better when she's gone). ʽSet You Free This Timeʼ seems simple and repetitive, but oh that vocal part — out of nowhere, you have this bittersweet, quivering-but-struggling vocal that has to be sustained through the long winding verse melody, and makes the song seem like the first truly serious «breakup song» of the young rock band era. My favorite is ʽIf You're Goneʼ, with another stunning vocal and... how the hell do they have that weird hum going on while Gene is singing? Sounds like vocal harmonies recorded from the bottom of a well or something. Do they have deep wells in Columbia Studios? In any case, I'm pretty damn sure that these effects on backing vocals had never been used previously, not by any major artist, at least.
(Two more Clark songs did not make it onto the LP, but are available as bonus tracks on the regular CD edition — ʽShe Don't Care About Timeʼ is another romantic classic, but ʽThe Day Walk (Never Before)ʼ seems largely to get by on the strength of copping the ʽSatisfactionʼ riff, and is noticeably inferior to the rest of Gene's songs, which is probably why it was left off; no need to suspect envy or sabotage on this particular occasion).
McGuinn still languishes far behind in comparison as a songwriter (his two originals here are fairly lackluster), but not as a visionary — the decision, for instance, to reinvent ʽHe Was A Friend Of Mineʼ as an obituary to JFK, though clearly naïve in retrospect, is one of those «why folk music still matters today» moves that kept the whole thing alive and vibrant at the time. And ʽOh! Susannahʼ, this time around, closes the album on a joke note, even if McGuinn couldn't really sing in joke mode to save his life, so there's a bizarre desperation to his vocals on the verses, you just want to lend him a helping hand or something.
In a way, it may be so that Turn! Turn! Turn! captures the essence of the early Byrds tighter than Mr. Tambourine Man — by purging away some of the more obvious Beatles influences, and focusing more sternly on the American side of business. But then, of course, you can always make the argument that by purging those influences they tipped the balance a bit too far in the «folk» direction of «folk rock», and this made the songs less memorable and the whole experience less fun. (I know I could certainly have been made more happy with something like ʽIt's No Useʼ on this record). And ultimately, it's one of those mood swing things, I guess. The record clearly deserves a thumbs up and a solid place in the canon, but in the context of the times... well, just remember the distance between Help! and Rubber Soul, or between Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, and against that top level background, the Byrds weren't really doing all that great in late '65. Fortunately, they had the intuition to understand it.