Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Moody Blues: On The Threshold Of A Dream (1969)

On The Threshold Of A Dream, the Moody Blues' first album release of 1969, is where things start to get a bit...grand. It begins with the packaging: gatefold sleeve, wraparound cover art, lyric sheet, guest liner notes. And what is that on the cover anyway? A robot octopus uprooting a braintree? Yeah, I know, I know: dreams.

That's the concept, evidently: dreams. Problem is, they don't seem to have anything really to say about dreams. Their first two albums approached the concept-album theme simply, but with ideas that allowed for fairly natural follow-through. Both rubrics, the day-in-the-life and the man's-search-for-meaning, lent themselves to a loose teliology. Movement: progression. You wake up, you go to bed. You search, you find. Dreams, not so much. Lyrically the concept seems to be limited to random insertions of the word "dream" into love songs, plus a song explicitly about daydreaming, plus poem that announced itself as the dream. Meh.

But it may take you a few listens to realize that the concept is so thin, because the album comes on with such determination, like a real strong enthusiastic handshake, or a white-booted go-go dancer whipping her hair in your face when you just want to ask her her name. This album was the Moodies' swing at a pure pop masterpiece. They miss: too much swing. Relax, kid. Don't try so hard.

Side One starts off with a spoken-word piece, like their first two albums, but that's misleading. They really do try to break out of their formula on Dream, and this isn't a poem, precisely. More like a very short radio play with three roles: First Man (a tentative voice groping his way through Cartesian propositions), Establishment (a robot octopus, one presumes, promising to dehumanize First Man), and Inner Man (a Carnaby Street beat poet who tells First Man to, essentially, keep on truckin').

Yes, I know, but it has nice cosmic sound effects behind it. Chilly space hums. And it bursts into a second surprise: Justin Hayward singing a rock song of his own composing. "Lovely To See You." And it is. Catchy, propulsive, even danceable (one speculates: one has never actually danced to Moody Blues music).

The upbeat mood is broken next with Ray Thomas's "Dear Diary." For this record Thomas seems to have traded in his familiar whimsy for a slightly snarkier outlook. At heart this number is an English Romantic take on "Ballad Of A Thin Man," with Mr. Jones musing to himself while gazing through a rain-streaked window out at a pastel street scene. But the title conceit and the spoken part over the fadeout contain a mean little satire on self-absorbed diarists. It's not half bad.

John Lodge's two numbers come next, back to back near misses. "Send Me No Wine" is kind of a Moody Blues-play-Byrds thing, and works about as well as it sounds like it would. "To Share Our Love" has all the tension and bombast of Lodge's psychedelic freakouts, without the sense of freedom and unpredictability: it's a very highstrung number, not a lot of fun.

Mike Pinder ends the side with a song that almost slips into self-parody: "talk to me baby," it starts out, with all the subtlety of a plastics salesman in a Holiday Inn bar. It only goes downhill from there: he's lonely, and wants to feel the fire so deep within you. Heavens to Murgatroyd. On the other hand, the instrumental refrain has nice tympani and flutes, and the bridge is the dreamiest thing on the first side of the album. So far I don't think any of Pinder's songs have been unalloyed successes, but none of them have been total losses, either. There's always something really interesting in them, even if it's hiding.

Side Two: Now we're in familiar territory, with a prize Hayward ballad getting pride of place at the beginning of the side. A tremendously, tremulously romantic verse ("if only you knew what's inside of me now / you wouldn't want to know me somehow" - an eloquent evocation of self-doubt, I always thought) that breaks into an easy, assured, swinging chorus. Just like with "The Actor," the arrangement and playing are top-notch, with subtle harmonica accents on the rhythm adding a touch of cowboy that fits right in. Again they show how sophisticated a mainstream pop band they can be.

"Lazy Day," Ray Thomas's second number, sounds like it's going to be a kiddie song, but again gets into a little gratuitous meanness. This time it's a satire on the working man's lazy Sunday afternoon. Like, look at the lame people watching the idiot box. ...At least, I hope it's a satire. If it's an affectionate look at everyman's weekend, then it's inadvertently horrifying in its evocation of banality. Either way, kind of an odd essay. But the wordless vocal refrain ("ah-ah-ah" etc.) is mesmerizing. I suppose that's the dream imposing itself upon the scene?

"Are You Sitting Comfortably" is the only real dream song on the record. Assisted dreaming, is what it's about: sipping something and seeing visions. Visions of Camelot - escape into daydreams of Tennysonian splendor. Merlin is our guide this time, rather than Timothy Leary, but it's all the same: trips around the bay. A Thomas/Hayward collaboration, sung by Hayward, this song shouldn't work, but it does. Gentle minor-key melody that sounds like a less sun-tanned third-cousin twice removed of David Crosby's "Guinnevere," pensive acoustic accompaniment, sighing flute lines. It's the best thing on the record.

It's followed by - linked to - the only real recited poem on the album, "The Dream," about which the less said, the better. And then we get the Epic. Pinder's real contribution to the record, and really the band's most ambitious piece yet. It's a ballad, the limpid "Have You Heard," bisected by a faux-classical instrumental passage entitled "The Voyage." The dream theme seems to have disappeared here, in favor of more journey imagery, or is that what the title means: we've now crossed the dream's threshold and we're sailing across the sea of the subconscious? Who knows? What I know is that this is a suite, right, or reaching towards that idea; which is why this track (trio of tracks, on CD) is always part of the argument in favor of seeing the Moodies as prog. And, what the hell, I'll give it to them. "The Voyage" does pick up a couple of classical-derived melodies and develop them in sort of chamberish ways. And its placement between the two halves of the ballad creates a formal complexity in the work that distinguishes it from the typical pop song; the arranged interlude, with its succession of complex and delicate moods, is a far cry from the typical rock instrumental break, and when it subsides back into the song it really does feel like we've been somewhere. Again, compared to what Yes and KC and the like would be doing very soon it feels pretty primitive. But if you can stop thinking of prog as a contest, and just judge this as an ambitious, trippy pop song circa 1969, it works pretty well.

Fade to space sounds.

And that's the album. Closing with that epic and all, it is, as I say, a pretty grandiose statement. And because the songs aren't as consistently good as those of its immediate predecessor, I have to say the grandiosity is a bit empty. The highlights here stand with their best work: but I don't love this album like I do the previous two.