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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Captain Beefheart: Unconditionally Guaranteed

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: UNCONDITIONALLY GUARANTEED (1974)

1) Upon The My-O-My; 2) Sugar Bowl; 3) New Electric Ride; 4) Magic Be; 5) Happy Love Song; 6) Full Moon Hot Sun; 7) I Got Love On My Mind; 8) This Is The Day; 9) Lazy Music; 10) Peaches.

1974 was unquestionably the strangest year in the history of Captain Beefheart — the year in which he came out with a pair of albums that turned out to be his most «normal» recordings ever, and that, in itself, makes this the most bizarre and unpredictable turn of events for the man. Other artists could be expected to go «commercial», perhaps, and genuinely sacrifice the search for new sounds and experiences to boring, but financially rewarding, conventionalism: Don Van Vliet, however, seemed like one of the few select artists for whom «going commercial» was as easy to do as it would be for a fish to walk on land. Not because he was so vehemently and ideologically against it, but because he'd spent so many years not speaking that language at all.

His failure in 1974 was not in «selling out», but rather in the fact that he had no idea whatsoever how to sell out. Apparently, the slightly more accessible grooves of The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot failed to increase public interest in his music: if the former did very briefly put him on the charts, the latter only brought back the plunge, and something more drastic had to be resorted to if the poverty-eliminating strategy remained in place. And so, with a hint of self-irony on the album sleeve where the Captain is holding some crumpled dollar bills with a semi-stupefied look of total incredulity, Unconditionally Guaranteed arrives as a fully normal record of contemporary pop-rock, blues-rock, and roots-rock songs — genre-wise, probably standing closer to mid-Seventies «pub-rock» than anything else.

The results are nowhere near as bad as they are usually advertised: had this album been recorded by anybody but Captain Beefheart, the typical reaction would probably vary from mild pleasure to absent-minded indifference, rather than disgust and horror. The worst thing, however, is that even if this somehow happens to be the first Captain Beefheart album in your life, it will still not take long to understand that something is very wrong — that this is either a mediocre commercial artist feigning artistic madness, or (as was actually the case) that this is a formerly mad artist trying, but not knowing how to sound «normal». Where his previous two records observed the balance between craziness and conservatism quite loyally, here the craziness is largely restricted to some of the lyrics (occasionally) and some of the vocals (many of which suffer from what seems like a bad case of laryngitis, though perhaps it was merely an effect of suffering from supreme depression at the idea of what he was doing). And that's a piss-poor balance — if you ask me, the only choice to make this record good would be to go all the way, and take proper care of all the arrangements, inflections, and modulations.

At least it begins nice enough: ʽUpon The My-O-Myʼ is a mean-'n'-lean funky workout in the tradition of ʽBooglarize You Babyʼ and ʽLow Yo-Yo Stuffʼ, though with less interesting and complex guitar work — but a nice flute and sax interlude from guest musician Del Simmons to compensate. The self-addressed question, "now tell me, good Captain, how does it feel / To be driven away from your own steering wheel?" sort of gives you a first hint at whatever is coming up, but the groove as such still has plenty of snap, and Beefheart's vocal performance is probably his best on the record. Skip ahead, though, and the next track is ʽSugar Bowlʼ, a pedestrian country rocker with exactly one musical phrase to make sense of — and not even a phrase that was invented by Beefheart or any of his musicians. But if that song is simply «nothing special», then ʽNew Electric Rideʼ is a monotonous, repetitive groove whose lyrics suggest an air of joyful exuberance — "here we go again, baby, on the New Electric Ride... I could barely hold my pride..." pride in what? the fact that it is possible to sing in some sort of a dying croak and still manage to stay on key? The problem is that the music, the lyrics, and the vocals on this song just do not belong together — you might as well invite Pavarotti to sing on a Clash track, or, more to the point, Stephen Hawking to sing ʽHey Judeʼ, or maybe forget it, because the former would at least be novel, and the latter disturbing. ʽNew Electric Rideʼ is just pathetic.

With song titles like ʽHappy Love Songʼ and ʽI Got Love On My Mindʼ, it is as if the befuddled Captain were hopelessly lost somewhere in between the art of parody and the desire to generate a bunch of genuine generic love ballads — the results being equally unpalatable to his old fans and to the general public. Weirdest of all, he is not totally incapable of creating a good love ballad: ʽThis Is The Dayʼ, on which he sings with an unusually clean and convincing voice, and graced with a very pretty lead guitar melody, is a really good track whose lyrics do not try to make use of commercial clichés, and ʽMagic Beʼ almost comes close, although his voice is still too shaky on that one to normalize it completely (and, like I said, only total and utter normalization would allow these songs to have a proper emotional effect). But for every track like that, there's one or two silly «happy-exuberant» numbers like ʽFull Moon Hot Sunʼ that simply feel sick.

I do not deny the catchiness of the melodies, but it would be shameful to call Unconditionally Guaranteed a good album just because the Captain took care to insert some earworms — which were never his preferred specialty in the first place. The closing ʽPeachesʼ, a musical variation on Wilbert Harrison's ʽLet's Stick Togetherʼ, is kind of a guilty pleasure to me, but it would still work better with a different vocal performance. Otherwise, the best I can do is not condemn the record: it is essentially listenable, and there is something deeply intriguing in its artistic failure that still makes it an unexpendable part of Beefheart's total legacy, much as the Captain himself would want all of us to forget it.

It is said that upon hearing the final results, the Magic Band was so shocked of its own wrong­doing that it simply stood up and left the good Captain — and that the good Captain subsequently disowned the record himself and, once his contract with the Mercury label ran out, urged every­body who bought it to return it for a proper refund. Even so, there is no getting away from the fact that Don Van Vliet wrote these songs, and the Magic Band recorded them (and later on, the Captain even took a few of the better ones on the road), and it wasn't merely to placate the record industry bosses. There is also no getting away from the fact that this record is not boring — if you want boring American music from 1974, try Kansas or, I dunno, Carly Simon. It is an artistic disaster, but when the artist is of Don Van Vliet's caliber, disaster has its own special fascination that can even be more memorable than success.

2 comments:

  1. I've often felt like "Unconditionally Guaranteed" is let down by Don's vocal performance, with "This is the Day" being a great counterexample. Some of the material could certainly have been salvaged, and there's nothing inherently suspect about deciding to put out an album of softer stuff. But his voice on most of this is just...off. He sounds so miserable that it's tough to focus on the underlying songs.

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