THE BYRDS: BYRDMANIAX (1971)
1) Glory, Glory; 2) Pale Blue; 3) I Trust; 4) Tunnel Of Love; 5) Citizen Kane; 6) I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician; 7) Absolute Happiness; 8) Green Apple Quick Step; 9) My Destiny; 10) Kathleen's Song; 11) Jamaica Say You Will.
Approximate critical consensus says thus: The Roger McGuinn Experience fell flat on its face with Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, miraculously recovered with Ballad Of Easy Rider, miraculously climaxed with Untitled, then just as immediately fell flat on its face again with Byrdmaniax, in a series of rise-and-tumbles that are all too strange to understand considering that (a) the band, at this point, never went through major lineup changes, (b) pursued more or less the same stylistic course, and (c) hardly aspired to getting back in the major league by adapting to the times (e. g. shifting over to hard rock or glam).
I cannot really subscribe to this point of view. Yes, some of the 1969-72 records may certainly be a little worse or a little better than others, depending on how many unfunny novelty numbers are included or on whether McGuinn wants to inject some symbolism in his song structures or not. But on the whole, this period is even — no major marvels or disasters, and I find myself shrugging my shoulders both at the loving appraisal of Untitled and at the exaggerated disgust for Byrdmaniax, the ill-fated follow-up.
Supposedly, the Achilles' heel of Byrdmaniax is an increased degree of Kim Fowley's involvement in the life of the Byrds — this time, the man has a whoppin' three co-credits with Skip Battin, and two of them sound as far away from what we expect of the Byrds as anything: ʻTunnel Of Loveʼ is a useless five-minute recreation of Fats Domino's ʻBlueberry Hillʼ groove accompanying a rather macabre, Alice Cooper-worthy, lyrical fantasy; and ʻCitizen Kaneʼ is two minutes of vaudeville nostalgizing about pre-war Hollywood values (actually, despite being so very un-Byrdsey, it's actually somewhat funny, and quite harmless with its 2:37 running time). ʻAbsolute Happinessʼ takes a more serious tone, but hardly registers as an actual song — it is so quiet and so lacking in melodic presence that you can never properly remember what is so absolute about it.
However, Fowley's presence alone is hardly sufficient to make the album a complete disaster. For one thing, it's got a really strong opener — the energetic cover of the ʻGlory, Gloryʼ spiritual, with what might be one of McGuinn's strongest ever vocal performances for the band; those high notes on "I wanna thank you Jesus" and on the hallelujahs, combined with Roger's timbre, sting all the right emotional centers, and although the arrangement has been criticized for the fast-moving piano part, I think it totally belongs in the song. For another thing, ʻPale Blueʼ and ʻKathleen's Songʼ, even if they are not masterpieces, are at least as good as any ballad on Untitled, and I also do not think that Melcher's orchestration spoils either of them as long as it does not drown out the acoustic guitar, harmonica, and vocals (and it does not).
There's also ʻI Trustʼ, Roger's experiment in crossing R&B/gospel aesthetics with country-rock arrangements that is neither too inspiring nor too disappointing, but again, his singing on the track is to be heavily commended; decent covers of Helen Carter's ʻMy Destinyʼ (not that worse than anything on Sweetheart) and Jackson Browne's ʻJamaica Say You Willʼ; and Roger's own take on the vaudeville genre, ʻI Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politicianʼ, which is even more trivial than the Fowley song but is also even shorter. Finally, ʻGreen Apple Quick Stepʼ is basically ʻNashville West Vol. 2ʼ, arguably done in a more down-to-earth, rustic style than its predecessor, but there's nothing wrong with that.
Also, now that the album has been properly reissued on CD, you can also take the liberty of replacing any of its worst numbers with a nice cover of ʻJust Like A Womanʼ that was recorded during the sessions but not used for some reason. Okay, that would be a cheap cop-out, but the general assessment stands: Byrdmaniax is a problematic record that suffers from some erroneous decisions (including, most definitely, the decision to place a set of the band members' death masks on the front cover! what were they thinking?), but it is by no means an artistic embarrassment compared to its immediate predecessors. Same mix of nice, boring, and throwaway pieces as usual — most likely, it is primarily its total lack of ambitiousness that earned it its negative points in 1971, when not being ambitious counted as being worse than nothing.