Friday, July 1, 2011

The Moody Blues: Seventh Sojourn (1972)

Their seventh album, and the last of the Moody Blues' main sequence, was the aptly, if unimaginatively, named Seventh Sojourn (1972). The blandness of the title - and, probably, the barrenness of the landscape on the cover - suggested what was going on with this record. The band was tired, out of steam, and basically, whether they realized it at the time or not, at the end of its run. After this they'd go on hiatus, and although they'd have some hits, and some worthwhile songs, after their comeback, it was never quite the same again. For one thing, the lineup would change: they literally weren't the same band anymore after this.

It's good, then, that they went out on a high note. This is their strongest album since their fourth, and in some ways (not all) it might be their strongest overall. A side-effect, I think, of their fatigue is the fact that this album contains no poetry, no multi-part suites, no musique concrete: just songs. And it's a stronger album for that, even if it risks becoming a bit generic.

It helps that just about everyone is contributing his best work. Pinder - the one who wouldn't come back from the hiatus - launches the record with the remarkable "Lost In A Lost World." The first thing you may notice with this track is how downbeat it is for Mike Pinder - all the optimism and enthusiasm that have heretofore marked his work is gone, replaced by a world-weariness and even desperation that nevertheless make for some bracing art. It's a pessimistic song, but it doesn't rage: it sighs and mutters. And those sighs and mutters are set to, of all things, a disco beat - four or five years ahead of its time, and of course not as Philly-smooth as disco proper would be - but a very solid, very steady beat that, under other circumstances, would be deliriously danceable. Here the delirium is a little less salubrious, the strings less ecstatic than elegiac; it's a tour de force, really.

Edge, as a composer responsible for many of the band's worst moments in the past, graciously confines himself to a single co-writing credit here: he and Hayward come up with "You And Me," largely a rewrite of "Up To You," but with more rock elements.

Thomas only gets one number, and it's the apotheosis of the whimsical vein he worked so regularly. "For My Lady" seems to have come straight out of an imaginary rock-musical version of Don Quixote, set to a sea-chanty melody - comically dignified knights in armor serenading their ladies love, while hearty sailors rum-tum-tum behind. But as silly as it sounds, it really works - it's a beautiful number.

Hayward is as good here as he always is: it's no wonder he went solo after this, because he's clearly the one real major-league talent in the band (although his lack of real solo success suggests that he couldn't carry the weight alone). "New Horizons," his major contribution, basically sets the pattern for adult-contemporary ballads twenty years later, right down to the expert, soaring, searing chorused guitar solo. It's perfect - far too much so to have been written by a singer in a rock band, one feels. It's almost a Diane Warren number. There are no rough edges to this cut at all.

Seventh Sojourn's most pleasing surprise is that it finds John Lodge finally, finally, reaching his full potential as a songwriter. One wants to say he's returning to form - a couple of his songs on their early albums were gems of psychedelia - but his work here sounds nothing like that. "Isn't Life Strange" is a top-notch ballad, as haunting as Justin Hayward's best work, but with a classical ambition Hayward never displayed: the tune echoes Bach, and the arrangement, heavy on strings (Chamberlin strings), makes it almost a chamber piece. It's a masterpiece.

And it's only exceeded on the record by Lodge's other composition, the closer: "I'm Just A Singer (In A Rock And Roll Band)." This is one of the band's heavy-rotation classic-rock-radio hits - as familiar as "Questions" and "Nights In White Satin." And like them, its impact is undiminished by repetition, because it relies not on flash or attitude, but on a crafty arrangement, a solid structure, and passionate playing and singing. It's also perhaps the band's hardest rocker ever, with a truly searing guitar solo and a bruising Chamberlin-horn-section part. And, on top of all of that, with the way it ends, slamming on the brake and skidding to a halt, it's a perfect closer to their career - a downer, to be sure, professing defeat and retreat from the job of proselyting for love and peace. But effective.

Seventh Sojourn is the sound of a band that has grown up. One wonders what they could have accomplished if they'd managed to get their second wind and continue in this vein, rather than dissolving. Because when they came back, they'd be committing themselves to forever chasing past glories, trying to demonstrate that they were still the same band.

Nothing lasts forever.

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