CAMEL: BREATHLESS (1978)
1) Breathless; 2) Echoes; 3) Wing And A Prayer; 4) Down On The Farm; 5) Starlight Ride; 6) Summer Lightning; 7) You Make Me Smile; 8) Sleeper; 9) Rainbow's End.
Finally, a certified sellout! With the same lineup as on Rain Dances, Latimer and Bardens take Camel on a relaxed journey that combines traces of their «progressive» past with pure pop, simple balladry, and even a few escapades into the corny world of contemporary dance music (ʻSummer Lightningʼ borders on disco). With so much evidence in hand to make a perfectly winnable case, prog fans usually say that this is the point at which Camel finally sheds its hump and ceases to exist as a means of transporting the listener to magical musical worlds.
Despite this, and despite the even more suspicious fact that Breathless is also a fairly «happy» record for Camel, I have always felt attracted to it — perhaps because the songs harbor some sort of bright collective innocence. Even the two syrupy ballads, ʻYou Make Me Smileʼ and ʻRainbow's Endʼ, which usually receive the lion's share of hatred, are well-written and lack some of the cheesier trappings typically associated with such material — ʻYou Make Me Smileʼ may be riding a simplistic danceable bassline, but Latimer's tender vocal delivery still wins over with its quiet humility; the intonations and hooks put it closer to contemporary pop material by the Kinks and Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie rather than Styx or Foreigner or Chicago. And even if the falsetto vocal harmonies on ʻRainbow's Endʼ are a cringeworthy misstep, overdone to irritating point, the basic vocal melody itself is quite nicely modulated.
There's some really odd stuff, too, like Richard Sinclair's ʻDown On The Farmʼ, which begins quite deceptively with some huge power chords, like a monster Boston-style arena rocker — then, in one single whiff, turns into a quiet rural Brit-pop ditty that would not feel completely out of place on The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles & Fripp (a bit of extra humor and absurdity wouldn't hurt, though). ʻStarlight Rideʼ, with its smoothly sustained keyboard parts and gentle harmonies, sounds like London Town-era (i. e. contemporary) Paul McCartney with an extra baroque touch. And ʻSummer Lightningʼ basically just commits the crime of employing a dance signature, otherwise fully preserving Camel's aesthetics of quiet, unassuming, melancholic jazz-pop (it also features Latimer's most energetic-aggressive solo on the entire album).
The conservative spirit rules on two «prog leftovers», the seven-minute semi-epics ʻEchoesʼ (no relation to Floyd) and ʻSleeperʼ, of which the former has a pretty main theme in the guise of a psychedelic waltz, and the latter is an unremarkable exercise in fusion, truly the «sleeper» of the album. Essentially, it is as if you had a choice here — do you want the old Camel with its tired prog vibe, or the new Camel with its fresh ideas? The new Camel may go disco on your ass, but at least it's got the benefit of unpredictability. The old Camel will not betray its sense of taste and dignity, but it's never going to expand on Snow Goose and Moonmadness. Now it is all up to you, music lovers with an interest in the year nineteen hundred and seventy eight.
Personally, I think that Breathless is one of the better executed «compromises» of the time, and at the very least I'd definitely take it over stuff like Yes' Tormato or Genesis' And Then There Were Three: when Latimer and Bardens go pop, they are brave enough to go all the way that it takes to reach a proper hook, selling out for an actual purpose rather than just selling out and making music that is unsatisfactory from all points of view (not catchy enough to constitute good pop, not complex enough to make up for decent prog). As a result, we have this oddly optimistic record, full of good, friendly vibes presented without too much sentimentalism and without any unwarranted pathos whatsoever; a record that I not only find impossible to hate, but endorse with all the strength of a firmly fixed thumbs up rating.