THE BYRDS: BYRDS (1973)
1) Full Circle; 2) Sweet Mary; 3) Changing Heart; 4) For Free; 5) Born To Rock & Roll; 6) Things Will Be Better; 7) Cowgirl In The Sand; 8) Long Live The King; 9) Borrowing Time; 10) Laughing; 11) (See The Sky) About To Rain.
If I am not too mistaken, this was the first ever «reunion / comeback experience» in the history of rock music, at least as far as major league players are concerned. The event happened largely by accident — by late 1972, it so chanced that all five original Byrds found themselves at the crossroads, with their solo careers (including McGuinn's disaster with Farther Along) either commercially flopping or reaching a certain turning point (for instance, Crosby, Stills & Nash were on a lengthy hiatus). Had they been the Beatles, their egos would probably stay too huge and mutually repellent to succumb to attraction. But they weren't the Beatles, and five years after mutual disagreements tore them apart, the wounds healed well enough to initiate reunion talks. Throw in a nice financial proposition from Asylum's David Geffen, and the cat was in the bag.
One thing that was not in the bag, though, was nostalgia. The reunited band did have the exact same lineup as the Great Original Byrds of Mr. Tambourine Man — McGuinn, Crosby, Hillman, Clark, and Clarke — but they immediately came to an agreement that they would do anything but consciously try to recreate the «harmonies-and-jangle» atmosphere of their early albums, partly because trying to cohesively work as a single unit was the thing that ended up driving them apart in the first place, and partly because they were, after all, still too young and too full of ideas to bow down to pure nostalgia. Consequently, the reunion album, as everybody seems to agree, is not really a true «Byrds» album — it is a bunch of solo tracks, collected from four out of five members: more precisely, McGuinn contributes 2 songs, Crosby contributes 3 (one of them a Joni Mitchell cover), Hillman and Clark also 2 each, and then there are two Neil Young covers, suggested by Clark and defended by Crosby (saying that the band was now covering Neil Young instead of Dylan because Neil was for the Seventies what Bob was for the Sixties).
It is actually quite curious how the original Byrds were pigeonholed — reviews at the time were scathing, with people complaining about the disunity and the lack of jingle-jangle much the same way that in 1969, somebody could easily complain about the lack of "yeah yeah yeah"s on Abbey Road. True, the record on the whole sounds more like a James Taylor album with group harmonies, but even James Taylor in his prime had some good songs, and if there is no unity, at least there is diversity. Let's face it, when you have three songs on your record that totally sound like solo David Crosby, it's still better than when your record consists entirely of songs by solo David Crosby. On the other hand, the downside is also that in a situation like this, band members may be tempted to offer their weakest material for the collective pot, consciously or subconsciously saving up the best stuff for true solo albums.
The bottomline is that Byrds sounds quite nice. Only Crosby's ʻLaughingʼ, one of those lengthy stoned rants of his set to a completely unmemorable melody, sticks out unpleasantly with its 5:40 running length (and, adding insult to injury, it was already released earlier on his first solo album, so there's hardly any other reason than pure laziness behind its inclusion). Everything else ranges from cute to sympathetic — even the Neil Young covers, with ʻCowgirl In The Sandʼ remade as a bouncy, almost cheerful country-pop number and ʻSee The Sky About To Rainʼ featuring a soulful Clark lead vocal and even, in the form of a small bonus for the fans, some genuine 12-string jangle in the coda section.
Clark's two originals, ʻFull Circleʼ (also brought from his solo career) and ʻChanging Heartʼ, arguably have the best vocal melodies on the album — nothing too breathtaking, but the «alarmed» intonations on the chorus of the latter agree very well with the song's message (warning about the fickleness of fame and all that), and although the semantics of the line "funny how the circle is a wheel" is a bit tautological, its delivery is inspiring, and so well punctuated by the added mandolin lead line. As for Hillman, he contributes the album's poppiest tune, ʻThings Will Be Betterʼ, with colorful power pop riffs and lively choruses that would not be out of place on a contemporary Big Star or Badfinger album.
This leaves McGuinn, and, surprisingly, he is probably the second weakest link on the album after Crosby — throwing in his filler bit ʻBorn To Rock & Rollʼ (which has very little to do with actual rock'n'roll, not to mention stealing the verse melody from Dylan's ʻI Shall Be Releasedʼ) and the Jacques Levy collaboration ʻSweet Maryʼ, where I guess Levy wrote the lyrics and Roger borrowed the melody from some traditional sea shanty. Not that it doesn't sound nice — it's always nice to hear McGuinn sing traditional ballads, and the mandolin touch is again a gallant addition — but it does seem like, out of all the contributors, McGuinn contributed the smallest efforts to this reunion. It's basically like, "okay, guys, I've held up the Byrds name for four goddamn years on my own, now I'm just going to sit back and relax while you do your job". But I guess he may have thought he earned it, after all. Besides, less work — fewer reasons for arguing over artistic decisions with his former pals.
In retrospect, I think that the record does deserve a mild thumbs up, because of all the little pretty things and the essential lack of ugly bad things. Formally, it is sort of a belated Abbey Road for these guys — a «let's-come-together-and-be-friendly-for-the-last-time» type of album, except, of course, that there is not even a small attempt at the grandness of vision that characterizes Abbey Road; in the end, The Byrds never truly had a «grand vision», and they weren't about to try and develop one at the end of the road. It is not likely that anybody would want to revisit Byrds on a regular basis — however, it is still very comforting and satisfying to have it, witnessing the band coming «full circle» indeed. From Mr. Tambourine Man all the way to Byrds — such a long, strange, bizarre trip, beginning in one place and ending up in several completely different ones. Very instructive, at the very least.