Sunlight refracts through shards of glass and spills across a verdant hillside, illuminating the glory of the 12-string Rickenbacker for all to see. Yes, the florid raving is justified: It’s a glorious sound. The voices, though? I’m not as effusive. With their dull, blunt tones and tendency to drag phrasings far past prudent, these fowl evoke nothing more than the flightless ostrich—hardly fitting copilots for a trip through the sky. Same goes for their ability to make Dylan’s words complacency incarnate. After all, not everyone can sour “Chimes of Freedom” from ragged unity to pert consolation.
Still, these problems really only grow tiresome on the back half. Three off the front are crisp enough to sparkle, one makes uncertainty somehow alluring, and another suits their strung-out syllables so well it graces the marquee and shuts me up.
Here I was ready to celebrate: The titular hit is bright, shimmering, energetic—a beautiful furthering of an already iconic sound. They even tightened up their harmonies, thereby eliminating my chief complaint and the biggest obstacle to a sunny swirl of bliss.
Unfortunately, this is still an album. And no single, however singular, can carry the day when it’s surrounded by what amount to crumbs from the debut. It’s understandable, given the rush to market, but I doubt anybody forced the de-jangled tracks. And based on Clark’s efforts in that arena, I hope the ineffective melodies are only indicative of overwork.
Want to hear a bunch of wild-eyed folkies launch a commune into outer space? Of course you do. McGuinn’s oblique splatters elevate “I See You” and “Eight Miles High” to the sublime, the gentler folk tunes have never had this soft a caress, and Crosby’s befuddlement (“What’s Happening?!?!”) is emblematic of the blissful optimism at the heart of this album. It’s an innocence that, despite Fifth Dimension‘s status as a key link between folk- and acid-rock, ensures weighty self-importance never enters to harsh the buzz. We can’t want the aliens thinking we’re too stuffy, now can we?
Seems the Fifth Dimension only leads back to Earth. Nothing here recalls the psychedelic vanguards of “Eight Miles High”, the group instead plopping reactionary effects on tired shells reminiscent of their sophomore slumping. “C.T.A.”‘s embarrassing bloops and babble stand in stark contrast to last year’s “Mr. Spaceman”, where alien life was a point of inquiry and discovery, not some trapping of gauche competition. Even the preceding two gems, tuneful as they are, chafe under the spirit of a band seemingly burnt out on expectation and pressure. Still, they’re preferable to the attempts at keeping up with their peers. Maligned as it is, “Mind Gardens” reads like nothing so much as third-rate Donovan, a man who, by ’67, had far eclipsed The Byrds in terms of genre alchemy and simple consistency.
If you want proof of how quickly the 60s moved, look no further.
I’ll plead partial ignorance as to why I find this so unsatisfying. The closest I can get are the voices: Trapped behind an intrusive layer of phasers, flangers, and—judging by “Draft Morning”‘s bridge—lasers, their resigned sighs simultaneously fail to make an impression and stand at odds with the pained experimentation that tries so hard to move Forward. Problem is, besides the blissful country-psych of “Get to You”, none of this coheres enough for me to believe McGuinn knows where Forward is.
It’s not you, Sweetheart, it’s me. I’ve waited years for a release to come along and open my ears to the joys of country music, but you just remind me of all its features that frustrate. What with your minimal rhythms and trebly, grating textures, the two things I cherish most in an album simply aren’t there. You should stay with that dapper chap Parsons, I think. He has an irritating drawl like molasses and favors a pedal steel that sounds just the same. You’ll be much happier with him.
McGuinn tries to pick up the pieces with a new group of compatriots, and the ensuing merger of country and psych teases the confusion that marred The Notorious Byrd Brothers into a full-blown crisis. Parsons and Hillman aren’t around to distinguish the twangs, so Roger’s lack of vocal presence hits harder than ever—as do the woefully navigated rhythmic changes, seen no more starkly than on the disastrous closing medley. If you’re left recycling a cover that was already phoned-in to start, your filler needs a better disguise.
That title really only applies to the first half, where the newbies cohere into a perky sort of twang that balances both the composure and restlessness inherent to their outlaw shtick. There’s certainly no way earlier lineups could’ve managed a fun, if frivolous, percussion break like “Fido”‘s.
But then the game of dress-up turns serious, with deep-voiced musings and Mexican trinkets serving as backdrops to the boys’ playacting, which similarly takes a turn towards the leaden and dour. That goes double for the Dylan cover—a textbook case of turgidity mistaken for reverence—and triple for the Spanish.
A studio disc, where country pokes bore and horses are branded like wives, and a live disc, where hyperactive showboating obliterates the tact of past classics—both portraits of complacency, coming from either end of the spectrum.
Repeat after me: Byrdmaniax is not Melcher’s fault. While the indistinct mixing and goopy orchestration certainly are, his task to salvage this was doomed from the start. Never before have these fowl come forward with something so anodyne, from composition to execution; and the gospel strains are so underdeveloped the opener would be just as simplistic without the pinched choir. To be fair, though, they are among the only sounds (along with “Kathleen’s Song”) to puncture the exhaustion.
Anemic backing (and fear of those spooky swear words) give lie to macho posturing, rock n’ roll moves read like last-ditch lifeboats, and overarrangements heighten a chronic immobility—all of which make clear how hasty of an apology note this really is.
A reunion album no one needed, with none of the jangle every one wanted and all of the sonic mush I’ve come to expect from country Byrds, no matter the lineup. Only point of interest: Crosby is as spacey as ever.