Friday 7 August 2009

Grace Slick "Dreams" (1980) (News, Views and Music 38, Revised Version 2014)

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Grace Slick “Dreams” (1980)

 Dreams/El Diablo/Face To The Wind/Angel Of The Night/Seasons//She’ll Do It The Hard Way/Full Moon Man/Let It Go/Season Of Man

Paul Weller had 22 of them. Lennon had a number nine one. McCartney had one of his mother Mary. David Crosby had one about a ‘Shadow Captain’ leading him astray. Ray Davies didn’t have any and wrote about his insomnia instead. No, we’re not talking about cakes or gold records here – we’re talking about dreams, one of the most common and useful songwriting ideas after love and romance. Grace Slick, she of the Jefferson Airplane and Starship, isn’t the kind of singer you usually associate with dreams and imagination (songs about real events and experiences have always been her strong point) but that's what makes this surreal, hazy yet bitey album all the more remarkable - easily the greatest and most essential purchase of her four solo albums. In one way this is in many ways her least dream-like album of all, full of stunning insights into her own life with the cold splash of trouble and tribulation, like the sober morning after an alcoholic binge and as tough as old boots. And yet there’s a magical, mystical quality to this album, which sounds – especially on the three-track tone poem on the second side – like the mystical side that's always been there in the background of the Airplane/Starship sound breaking through at last. A neat summation of that twilight time between sleep and awake, 'Dreams' is a forgotten and neglected work that sounds like the work of Grace's sub-conscious trying to find the right path and caught between scary realistic insight and the hazy realisation that there are still things to do and places to go.

Far from being a dream, most of Grace’s short solo career seems to be a nightmare. From the so-directionless-it’s-like-a-satnav-from-Aldis ‘Manhole’ to the ear-drum destroying heavy metal of ‘Wrecking Ball’ to the does-not-compute ‘Software’ the rest of Grace's career seems like a hobby made by someone concentrating full-time on whatever band she happens to be with at the time. But the delightfully dreamy ‘Dreams’ is quite a different prospect altogether, perhaps because at the time it was very much intended as the 'proper' start of a solo career that never quite happened. By 1978 Grace had been partying hard for nearly 15 years and the twin horrors a collapsing marriage to Airplane rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner and having to appear on stage with him every night as if everything was still ok had left Grace in an increasingly fragile state. Matters came to a head on a badly received 1978 tour to promote a badly received album ('Earth') that left Grace increasingly dependent on alcohol (one on night in Germany Grace got up a bit too close to one member of the front row - in her addled state she thought it might be fun to see whether her fingers could fit into a gentleman's ample nostrils - and to her pride they did!) Fearing their lead singer was becoming a bit of a liability (and with their other lead singer, Marty Balin, fed up and planning to leave) Paul had re-shaped the Starship to face a new decade without either of their focal points and by mutual agreement and/or with a bit of pushing (the extent of which has been lost in the mists of time) Grace found herself being dropped off from the Starship before their next destination (thankfully she'll be picked back up in 1981 and back in the band full time  by 'Winds Of Change' in 1983, an album so light and empty and silly in places Grace must have wondered what she was walking back to). By contrast, The earlier ‘Manhole’ was marking time before the Starship powered up their generators and to give Grace an album of her own to go with Paul’s (amazingly, she takes no part in one song ‘Only Music’ which is a Kantner-Frieberg song, showing how ‘false’ some of these midway Airplane-Starship album billings were). The two later albums were to give Grace an outlet for her talents in a band that were no longer built around her and only gave her two or three songs an album. ‘Dreams’, then, was to be the big break through in Grace’s career and the one into which she put everything she’d got but, despite a minor hit single in Britain with the title track (actually one of the worst songs here), 'Dreams' fell far short of its target in trying to reach the masses.

A lesser person might have gone under, but Grace took the sacking/hints from the band that she'd been the focal point for across so many years and albums the right way. 'Interventions' were all the rage back in the late 1970s - Grace even turned up at a few for her friends like David Crosby, who back then was even worse for wear - and she seems to have taken this forced break as something of an 'intervention'. While the album is divided quite neatly between covers and originals, split originally at the point where fans had to get up to turn the record over, there's a real theme of guilt and re-discovery that runs across the whole record. Grace’s nihilism, which created many of the Airplane and Starship’s most memorable moments, is as strong as ever but instead of being turned on politics or religion as in the past it’s turned squarely on herself. Grace’s recent struggles with drink and the shock of seeing so many of her seemingly indestructible friends and comrades fall into bad ways over the past decade (David Crosby, Jerry Garcia, Jim Morrison and her old sparring partner Janis Joplin) really made her focus on something a bit ‘deeper’ than usual and the lyrics are full of frustrations about digging deep through difficult times or having to realise your own failings. Grace writes the whole of the second side of the album, but in common with her own solos she chooses plenty of songs from outside writers too – unlike the anonymous ‘Wrecking Ball’ or ‘Software’, where co-writer Peter Wolf is surprisingly having a really off day in the melodies department, here the choice of cover songs are for the most part suitable and offer a good complement to Grace’s own material (amazingly perhaps the best of the cover bunch is by Ricthie Zito, with the multi-layered song of suffering 'Face To The Wind'; I say amazingly because his songs dominate follow-up ‘Wrecking Ball’ and all of them fail to be anything more than one-dimensional). Throughout the album Grace's many narrators have been tempted off the straight and narrow, sometimes by 'the devil' (or at least the Spanish word for him 'El Diablo', plus a reference in 'Face To Wind'), sometimes by circumstances, sometimes through bad choices. Guilt is the main theme that crops up time and time again, with Grace pouring out her heart over her bad choices and of being afraid to take more risks and 'Do It The Hard Way' - the highlight of the record and one of Grace's greatest compositions - is one of the saddest self-kicking AAA songs of them all, sung in the third person as if the song is just too personal to face up to ('They all knew she was bound to go down way before she fell').

However,  like all the best confessional singer-songwriter albums 'Dreams' doesn't simply mope and moan, with answers as well as questions and a determination and guts to be better and put things right, to simply put 'face to the wind' and fight on through difficult circumstances, that makes 'Dreams' much more than just a personal soliloquy. If nothing else then 'Dreams' is Grace's most 'complete' solo LP, a record that doesn't just confine itself to one style but shows off all sides of the singer's personality from autobiographical head-wringing to barnstorming rockers to some jaw-dropping orchestral ballads that show off what a wonderful emotive vocalist Grace is, was and always will be. Freed of the need to play contrast to whichever Jefferson Airplane/Starship/Paul Kantner spin-off project vocalist she’s up against (even 'Manhole' features her playing second fiddle occasionally), Grace is much more herself on this album and her vocal acrobatics are at the most natural and spontaneous since the Airplane's heyday. Grace's other solo albums tend to have her jumping on the bandwagon - the new wave of 'Wrecking Ball', the synth-pop of 'Software' and the sheer mid-70s weirdness and self-indulgence of 'Manhole', which is frustrating because it reduces one of the pioneers of the age to a mere copyist and there's nothing about Grace that isn't original or unique. By offering a largely orchestral, slow-paced ballads album (with two killer rockers stuck together on the first side) way out of touch with the heavier sound of the times and completely cutting herself off from the record market and making music solely for 'herself' Grace manages to come up with an album that's truly timeless: remarkably free of dated technology and full of themes that will live on as long as the human race does - guilt, sadness, regret and hope. The deepest Jefferson-anything related release since 1974's 'Dragonfly', sadly this is the last truly essential release any of them made (though I still have a soft spot for 'Modern Times' and 'Nuclear Furniture').

Slick’s knack for a good melody is also at its strongest here – no disrespect to either of her past bands (who are, after all, brilliant because of their unlikely collaborations sparking off in all directions at once, in every era) but it’s lovely to hear a Slick song that doesn’t have to break away for a guitar solo or an excuse to get the band playing all together. Sadly Grace doesn't get to play much on this album, giving it quite a different 'sound' to Manhole and her collaborations with Paul: the record might have been even better had it been built on her distinctive block-chord piano attack. Then again, the sound of 'Dreams' is a most memorable one, with an orchestra swathing most songs in hazy, swirly fog that's occasionally kicked aside by the clarity of Richie Zito's stinging guitar. The whole of the record sounds like a battle fought between the two and while it ominously ends with a fully orchestral three-song sequence (the most fragmented, surreal and stream-of-consciousness of Grace's career) the record does feel as it has a turning point where the darkness and demons are banished and the light wins. We've mentioned several times across this site, half-jokingly, that if the NHS needs to cut down on the amount of anti-biotics it gives out then music would be a fair alternate (just picture it: the sheer comfort of all those brilliant people telling you that 'you're not alone') and have even nominated a few albums in the past (Cat Stevens' second and third records are the soundtrack to a break down the singer doesn't even realise is coming himself and his pain-staking recovery). Well, 'Dreams' is the companion the AAA recommends to those fighting an addiction: it goes through the several cycles of recovery so well (denial, anger, pleading, sadness and eventually acceptance) so well that you wonder if that's what Grace was working at here. 'El Diablo' vows not to be tricked by urges, 'Face To The Wind' urges the listener to battle on through, 'Do It The Hard Way' is Grace admitting her mistakes and 'Let It Go' coming to a final conclusion that she needs to 'leave the loaded dice alone', with a verse about how she was woken to her senses because she 'saw too many people dying'. The last song even reaches out to the listener at the very end in a moving statement that she too never used to think she was one of those people she used to scorn: the 'users, losers' who took it too far. But she was in denial: like them she was in danger of 'ending up face down' unless something stopped her and she turns to us, facing whatever depths of hell we're in, and asks simply 'is that how you want it to be?' Yes that's right, the singer who talked in 'White Rabbit' about how drugs could open your mind (and worse had been taken in huge quantities by the 'parents' telling their off-spring not to go near them) has come full circle and admits that she has a problem. Of all the brave Grace Slick moments (standing up to the law, to Nixon, to sexism, to racism, to the Christian Church and to mankind as a species) this is the bravest, when Grace learns to stand up to her peers and to a certain extent to herself.

The three songs at the end, which flow into each other so wonderfully (each one sounding like a 'conclusion', till a still-learning Grace finds another new insight into her predicament) are the most spiritual side of Grace's writing. This marks a huge breakthrough for her, as till now it's the 'realism' in her work that fans tend to adore most (you know the sort of thing - the graphic earthiness of the male-baiting 'Two Heads', the sheer guttural yearning of 'Somebody To Love?' and the predatory howl of 'Across The Board', classics all). 'Full Moon Man' is a tribute to love, with a figure whose not quite there and whose softer ever-changing edges compared to all her previous partners allows Grace to let down her 'guard' and be herself. Grace's promise to run (the hint is that the new figure in Grace's life is a Cancerian; sadly there's not enough information around on the Starship's lighting man Skip Johnson - thought to be Grace's partner after her break-up with Paul, which caused all sorts of difficult moments backstage but that would be my guess as to who she's singing about here). 'Let It Go' finds Grace to connect with her 'spirit child', one that's been waiting all this time 'for you to grow'. Till now, though, Grace hasn't been listening: she's been spending too much time trying to keep up with her peers, desperate to run down two paths of partying and spirituality that isn't taking her far enough down the road she should be down. A sort of update of 'Let It Be', this song is about Grace finding the confidence to say 'no' and to spend less time worrying about other people and more time working out what she needs, the struggle to 'let them go' at their own speed while she slows down to hers.  After a sudden swell of aggression (Grace sounds even tougher singing against a noisy orchestra that she did against Jorma's feed-backing guitar!) in sweeps the gorgeous 'Garden Of Man'. Realising that the power to change comes not from outside intervention or outside faith systems but comes 'from your own hands', Grace tries to commune with her 'inner self' sensed through a 'mirror', pleading with it for guidance and caught between 'paradise' and 'paradox' (perhaps Grace even wrote this song in front of one?) This time she 'feeds her head' not with drugs but with the water of commitment and guidance, with 'every seed' flowing through her head planted to full fruition instead of simply being a passing fancy; only this way will love truly 'grow'. Throughout clever production trickery makes Grace sound more and more 'alien', gradually merging with her inner 'spirit child' until by the last verse she's lost her 'ego' and 'self' and become simply a ray in a light of love, projecting up to the sky. Taken together this hazy surreal trilogy is most affecting - especially coming straight after the all-too-vivid portrayal of guilt on 'Do It The Hard Way'. The album's first side is good enough, but this second is easily Grace's finest twenty minutes on record, an experience for anyone whose ever gone through such emotions themselves in their life or has spent most of it tracking Grace through hers.

The album cover makes clever use of this concept of 'real' and 'imaginary'. Grace stands face front, literally 'beside herself' as her 'inner' self teaches her 'outer' self a magic trick. Slick has spent so long being pulled through 'hoops' by record labels, band members, audiences and changing fashions that the message seems to be clear: this is a 'hoop' she's going through for no one but herself. You can do all kinds of funny logic-bending things in 'Dreams' too of course, which are caught right on the boundaries between 'illusion' and 'reality'; the clever cover catches this halfway point nicely, with a 'sleeping' Grace hanging in mid air while her 'illusion' self looks on.

So far we've been writing as if 'Dreams' is a 'perfect' album so many of you regular readers might be wondering why this album wasn't picked for our as-close-to-perfect-as-can-be 'core' 101 albums (originally what the whole of Alan's Album Archives was written for before we got carried away!) The sad fact is, though, I couldn't possibly recommend as 'near-perfect' an album that contains the truly awful travesty of talent that is 'Seasons'. An ugly, cheap, derivative song with cheesy lyrics and the worst kind of children's choir (the ones with lisps and soppy voices - this is closer to Clive Dunn's 'Grandma' than Pink Floyd's 'Another Brick In The Wall! That isn't me getting at the choir by the way but the arranger - the children sound as fed-up at having to act 'younger' than they really are as the listener will hearing it back), it isn't just the low-point of this album but arguably the low-point of the whole book. The similar title track, while not quite as dodgy, is also rather ordinary and derivative - for the life of me I can't understand why this song was a 'hit' when released as a single and yet the album as a whole flopped. Thankfully the rest of the album is a lot better, but a short-running nine song LP has more troubles overcoming two duff moments than, say, a lengthy 14 song album would. I try to be as fair as I can with these reviews, finding the 'best' records in terms of 'averages' across each album (although I won't bore you with them like a lot of review sites do - giving scores makes this too much like a personal rant than a considered opinion and you'll soon pick up the gist of what songs I like and don't from the mini-song reviews anyway); 'Dreams' scores several 'eights' 'nines' and 'tens' across the board, but these two (scoring 'one' and 'minus several million' respectively - hang on a minute, did I just say I wasn't going to score individual tracks? Heck I'm having too much fun to stop now...) drag the overall average down (to somewhere near minus million, which believe it or not still rates this record higher than every single Spice Girls release, which are all on minus several billion).

Still, in a funny way that's rather apt: 'Dreams' is an album about how it's OK to get things wrong every now and again and that everyone is human and liable to get things wrong. Even with two mistakes where everyone's tastes (Including Grace's) seemed to be out to lunch, there are so many parts of this record that everyone gets spot on that 'Dreams' is still overall a deeply impressive album, among Grace's finest in fact. Never before or since have her songs been quite so personal, so poignant, so courageous - it must have taken guts to open yourself up like this when Grace is best known for writing 'through' other people (taking people to task who deserve it or seeing the world through the eyes of her baby, hippies, a tree, etc). It's such a shame that, after finding the courage of her convictions here, that Grace didn't carry on with her solo career -well, technically she did, of course, but just as before her solo career very much plays second fiddle to her diluted work with Jefferson Starship ('Welcome To The Wrecking Ball' is the very sound of a record dashed out in five minutes, as opposed to this lovingly crafted album - typically that fashion-chasing album sound a tiny bit better). But our site is about more than just whether an album sells or not: that's the kind of thing a record company worries about, not a music fan. Out of print for far too long (there was a CD release, late on in 2004, but it disappeared so quick even I didn't buy it and still have to make do with a battered vinyl copy!), 'Dreams' is one of those special moments you live for as a collector: an album you don't know much about, bought simply out of loyalty to the performer and the enjoyment the 'brand name' has given you down the years, which turns out to be more than mere collection filler: 'Dreams' is a friend, a companion, a shoulder to cry on and a fellow soldier out fighting for better in a world that tries to throw everything it has at you, a record with many levels (some of which I'm still trying to untangle, decades on). Released to ignorance and silence, 'Dreams' deserved better. In short, like the title track asks, Yes I believe in magic and I still 'believe' in 'Dreams'. Hopefully one day fans will too.

The Songs:

There’s a lot of highlights to get through so let’s crack on with the opener, which – unusually for this list – happens to be the title track.[172]  ‘Dreams’ is the best known song on this album (a surprise hit single in Britain at a time when Jefferson Starship weren't charting there, it’s almost the only song from this album included on the Grace Slick best-of currently out – why for crying out loud?! I’m not the only fan to rate this as her best work) and is a moody ballad freed from the usual rock instruments in favour of an orchestra. Most singers in this context pretend to be opera singers and belt out their songs for all they’re worth, even if they haven’t got the voice for it. Grace, in contrast, has got more than enough power but she holds it in check for the most part, allowing the song to build in parts and the opening crooning may be some of her best singing on record. This outside song is a curio in Grace’s catalogue in that it’s quite suitably dreamlike and surreal, with a parade of unwelcome characters parading in front of our eyes along with reflections on our real lives as a similarly bizarre circus. Usually Grace and indeed all the Airplane/Starship troupe’s songs are to-the-point (barring David Frieberg’s folk epics, at least, which are just as beautiful but never quite fit). Despite appearing on grace’s most autobiographical album to date, ‘Dreams’ is just a fine singing coping well with a demanding well-crafted song and a welcome chance to show off what she can do.   

[173] ‘El Diablo’ is another outside song that’s slightly rockier and more mainstream but is still a nicely choral and epic work a million miles away from the rock-funk of ‘Somebody To Love’ and ‘White Rabbit’. El Diablo is, so I’m told, another name for the devil although you might not learn that from the lyrics – this could be any good hypnotist with the power to manipulate somebody (who said George Bush?!) In the context of the rest of the album and what we know about Grace’s problems with alcohol in this period from her autobiography, it seems likely that this song about temptation and falling into bad ways had some resonance for her. El Diablo, you see, is not a danger in himself because he never forces himself on his victims, he just hovers around them offering temptations and seeing if they’ll bite. There’s some lovely Spanish guitar on this track to add to the album’s pot-pourri of styles, together with some driving electric guitar from Zito and some interesting sound effects that really does make this sonic landscape sound huge despite the fact that there are actually very few musicians playing.

[174] ‘Face To The Wind’ is even better. A classic song about facing up to difficult times even when you know they are going to hurt you, this is another ‘outside’ song about courage that really brings out the best in both Slick and guitarist Richie Zito, whose lengthy solo here is well up to the high standards of Jefferson guitarists Jorma Kaukonen and Craig Chaquico. Like ‘Dreams’, the whole song sounds slightly surreal rather with a high octane rocker in there somewhere pulling against the leash to get the walking pace tempo moving, as if tugging the narrator face-forward into the fears she doesn’t want to face. The lyrics to this song are first-class, with the narrator spending so many hours trying to plan how to face the changes in her life she doesn’t know where to start. With more imagery of demons and ‘baddies’ ready to scare the narrator off, this is the third song in a row to deal with the dark underside of life that haunts you and gives you nightmares – Grace’s scared but strong vocal shows just how personal these ‘cover’ songs seem to have been for her in this troubled period.

[175] ‘Angel Of The Night’ is the only real song on this album that’s a powerhouse rocker without some twist in the tale slowing it down or shaking it up in some way. Grace’s vocal on this song is nicely raw, with writer Richie Zito’s riff-heavy but inventive guitar parts a good foil for her yet again. As songs go, it’s probably the most ordinary on the album – it’s another reiteration of this album’s themes of having dangers perched over your shoulder, waiting to take control of your life – but the performance here is a cracking one, with all the musicians on good form. In fact, despite this song’s serious subject matter and it’s haunting lyrics, it just sounds like a band having fun with a simple rocker. This song is also well placed on this album, drawing a line between the edgy songs before it and the surreal ones to come. 

[176] ‘Seasons’ is the album’s only true misfire, but sadly it’s pretty bad, falling into all the traps the other orchestral songs manage to avoid. Grace is at her worst in the vocal, sounding like that patronising primary school teacher you always yearned to dunk in a bucket of water and she gets horribly emotive in her vocal, making the chorus of ‘la la la la la’ sounds so excruciating it’s hard to believe that it’s only a semi-tone’s throw away from Paul Simon’s majestic ‘la la la’s in ‘The Boxer’. As for the song, I’ve heard better and deeper compositions on The Tweenies – in fact, I think I have heard this song on The Tweenies, seeing as it’s a generic song about seasons that hold no real insight into anything important other than that if you pretend it’s always Spring, even in Winter, you can over-come your circumstances and surroundings. Yeah right, when did you last see a child singing just because it was Spring and he/she felt like it? Annoyingly, the moody held-note verse that comes in every now and again (representing Winter, I think – I’ve trained my brain to ignore these awful words ever since the first time I heard this song) is pretty good, in an atmospheric film-score kind of way – it’s just a shame the rest of the song sounds like the songs you used to have to skip through in the Care Bears Movie and songs of that ilk (what happened to you in the 1980s, Carole King and John Sebastian?!)

 [177] ‘She’ll Do It The Hard Way’ starts a side-long run of the most sublime quality. One of the most damning of any self-hating songs in the AAArchives (and there’s quite a few, thanks mainly to John Lennon and Alan Hull), this is a fed up, hungover Grace cursing herself for falling into all the loud traps she promised herself she’d avoid, cursing herself for the self-pity she feels is all her fault and wondering why she has driven all her friends away. The worst of it all is that this song is sung in the third person, without any pity until the end of the song, with Grace comparing herself to every supposedly stubborn idiot in history, such as King Canute who told the sea to turn away from him (a historical myth, actually – he was demonstrating to his subjects that even he had no power over nature but the story has been garbled over the past 1500-odd years as stories tend to do). I’ve just been re-reading the ‘Baron Voll Tollbooth’ sleevenotes for the first time in a while and notice that the 2000-version of Grace laughs at her younger 1973-mark self for ‘damning others without seeing the same things in myself and what a fool I also was, I know that now but I hadn’t learned that then’). This is Grace learning that valuable lesson before our ears, kicking herself for thinking that she’s ‘the exception to the rule’ and that the egotism and coldness she’s been kicking the likes of Richard Nixon for for the past 15 years might well apply to herself as well. But Grace is too hard on herself here – her stubbornness and ‘inbuilt bullshit factor’ was right far more times than it was wrong (the Nixon-baiting ‘Mexico’, about certain underhanded political shenanigans in that country, is startling when you consider it pre-dates ‘Watergate’ by two years and the ‘Ohio’ Kent State Massacre by a few months and most people of the time were willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt back then. We know better now of course, thanks mainly to George Bush Jnr). I still can’t decide whether this is Grace’s open letter to an AA meeting (that’s Alcoholics Anonymous, not Alan’s Archives by the way) or a suicide letter. The lyrics are full of images about time running out before the narrator ends up with nothing and show that Grace is no longer willing to blot out her bad habits with excuses. In perhaps the best line of the song, which just erupts into fury after a pretty venomous two-minutes Grace tells us ‘And I can justify myself and say I’ve been cheated, that I’m the only one in this game that knows how to play, and if it weren’t for time I’d never be defeated, but people places and things they get in my way – and I don’t like what they say’. This is one of the best songs about denial ever written I think, with the narrator mirroring everything we say to avoid the cold truth and especially the classic self-limiting line ‘She’s going to keep on doing it just to prove that they’re all wrong’ – even though she knows in her heart that they’re right. Like Lennon, Grace is a brave, admirable character whose always been willing to risk her reputation, career, livelihood and goodness knows what else by standing up to corruption and dodgy dealings even when she knew it would cost her and it would be easier just to stand down. But just as with Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ album, I have never admired their bravery as much as when they lay their true selves right on the line for us listeners – they don’t have to, goodness knows; most rock fans hate the ideas that their favourites are just humans with human weaknesses but I can’t help loving them all the more when they do admit these kinds of things. One of the best tracks Grace ever wrote, this is startling, dazzling stuff that finally turns its weary eyes on the listener and including us directly by asking us‘ what will you do when you become the fool?’. I know how she feels (but not as much as the Spice Girls, I’d imagine. Darn, I’ve fallen into that trap of criticising others again! – see how easy it is to do?!)

[178] ‘Full Moon Man’ stands in complete contrast by being one of the loveliest love songs that Grace ever wrote. If I’ve got my timings right – and please tell me if I haven’t – then this song is presumably written for Skip Johnson, the lightning director that Grace went out with for quite a long period after breaking up with the Airplane/Starship’s Paul Kantner (not since Abba had a former couple had to appear on stage together and pretend it wasn’t happening; it’s testament to the pair’s belief in the ‘free love’ and non-ownership of the 1960s means they are both still writing love songs for one another; albeit Grace has been retired since the early 90s). The atmosphere of this song is once more back to the surreal, hazy opening  - and will stay like that till the end of the album – with Grace’s silky vocal at its best (like her soul-mate Janis Joplin, people often think all Grace can do is scream, but honestly that’s such a small part of both women’s oeuvre true fans of either can’t quite understand it when non-fans point this out). Unlike the last track, this is Grace realising that there are lots of possibilities opening for her and she’s impatient to experience as many of them at once as she can. As the title suggests, her lover here is not quite all he seems to be and is governed by unseen forces that even he can’t understand (probably about a Cancerian then – ed) – and, again in contrast to the last song, isn’t sure if he is worthy enough to win the narrator over (believe me, when a song as inspired as this is born, it doesn’t seem to be a question that needs to be asked). The ending reaches for big and epic – so big and epic, in fact, that when I owned this album on LP I always found myself getting up to change the record after this track with my brain getting so many signals that it was the ‘end’ (not true though, there’s still two tracks to go).

[179] ‘Let It Go’ is another curio in Grace’s catalogue as it’s the only time she really comes out and says that what the Airplane were telling us to do for so many years – take drugs, drop out, overthrow society – might have implications. We’ve already looked at Grace’s problems with alcohol, but this is her anti-drug song (and trust me, when you play this album back to back with the joyousness and adventurism of ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ you can’t quite ever believe that one of the Airplane ever changed personality enough to write an anti-drug song). This is another apologetic song from Grace, almost as if she’s saying sorry for being wrong all these years (she isn’t by the way, well not for the most part for the most people at least), all but promising the listener to stay true to her principles and ‘  is the only way I’m going to sing that song’. In a moving second verse she tells us about her love-hate affair with drugs (‘some said ‘take this – it will make you happy’, other said ‘don’t take it you’ll end up crying’, well it felt so good for a while but then I saw too many dying’) and then gets even more personal with the third verse, with Grace answering her critics with the advice that if they don’t ‘get’ her work then, it’s OK – her ‘fans’ will understand this album when they’re good and ready and gone though the similar changes to Grace. Listen out, though, for the sweet little piano-come-rumbling guitar-come-orchestra fade out, which is one of the loveliest little sections of any of Grace’s work and sounds very much like the similarly mature, old-before-her-time Kantner/Slick albums like ‘Sunfighter’ et al. Like ‘Hard Way’ this is Grace at her most mature and ‘grown up’ – it’s such a pity that she a) ended up back with the Starship after this album (I love their later records, especially ‘Nuclear Furniture’, but they’re hardly a career high-point from Grace’s point of view) and b) retired just nine years after this record’s release.

Hopes are high for a strong ending to this album , but actually [180] ‘Season Of Man’ is a kind of medley of the themes of the record stuck together and doesn’t really have an identity all of its own. It’s got the same creepy orchestral and low vocal mix shenanigans as ‘Dreams’ and the last two tracks, making Grace sound as if she’s lost and isolated in a dreamlike world where nothing is quite what it seems. Both the lilting melody and the fine lyrics are suitable on their own strengths (what other songs study the twin human desires of ‘paradise and paradox’, the idea that we shouldn’t be getting what we want so we destroy what we have?’) but neither quite fit together. The song really comes into its own by the final verse, though, where Grace finally goes back to her old ways by addressing the listener and their ‘generation’ (I’m a bit young for that Gracie but I get the message all the same) and urging mankind to find it’s true path without subjugation under rulers, politicians, companies, overbearing individuals, or anything that tries to steer us from our ‘true’ purpose. For such an epic song, though, this is quite a subdued low-key track (at least, it is until the lengthy fadeout where everything sounds huge once more), as if Grace is just a lone voice in the wilderness wondering where the rest of humanity have gone and why nobody’s joining in with her. After hearing this album, however, join in you will – its that sort of a track on that sort of an LP.

Still, one poor idea can’t compete against the five or six stunners that fill up the rest of the album. Sure its all a bit the same after a while (a factor frequently thrown at Grace’s solo albums, including this one occasionally), but this is a sequential samey rather than a can’t-be-bothered or an I’m-fed-up-samey like you do hear occasionally and that’s not the same thing at all. In fact, as far as mood pieces go, ‘Dreams’ is entering Moody Blues territory by conjuring up lots of different takes on a single subject (the nightmarish underbelly of life) and seeing where the album goes from there. As mentioned, Grace is analysing her own faults as well as the world’s And its as if this album really is born from a nightmare, those awful memories and fears that keep you awake half the night and Grace just somehow managed to convert it all into song. In fact, thinking about it again, it’s quite a logical extension of the surreal early Airplane sound before hits and radioplay got in the way (its not for nothing the band’s second album was called ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ after the band asked Jerry Garcia for his opinion of it when he was on a particularly stoned day), going back to that period where the music is nothing like its supposed to be because life isn’t what it’s supposed to be either (and doesn’t the sky look green today?) As companions through troubled times go, ‘Dreams’ is a fine album with a marvellous singer on top form backed by a pretty good backing crew all working hard to support her. It’s easily the best of Grace’s small handful of solo records and I might even go so far as to say it’s up there with beloved Jefferson records like ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ ‘Dragonfly’ and ‘Blows Against The Empire’; interestingly all of these records also sought to distort people’s perceptions of the band in some way and represented something of a change in sound and fortune for the band, whether up or down. The only real problem with ‘Dreams’, the awful ‘Seasons’ aside, is that there was no real change and no real follow-up in sound and texture, just a slow deterioration up to the band’s demise, with all that talent being hidden or at worst disappearing. Now that’s the stuff that gives you nightmares.

Other Jefferson-related reviews from this site you might be interested in:


'Takes Off!' (1966)

'Surrealistic Pillow' (1967)

'After Bathing At Baxters' (1967)

'Crown Of Creation' (1968)

'Volunteers' (1969)

'Bark' (1971)

'Blows Against The Empire' (Kantner)  (1971)

‘Sunfighter’ (Kantner/Slick) (1972)

'Long John Silver' (1972)

'Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun' (Kantner/Slick/Freiberg) (1973)

'Dragonfly' (1974)

'Red Octopus' (1975)

'Spitfire' (1976)

‘Earth’ (1978)

'Modern Times' (1981)

'Winds Of Change' (1982)

'The Empire Blows Back'# aka 'The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship) (1983)

'Nuclear Furniture' (1983)

'Jefferson Airplane' (1989)

Non-Album Songs 1966-1984

The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1974

Surviving TV Footage 1966-1989

Tribute Special: Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson

Live/Solo/Compilation/Hot Tuna Albums Part One 1966: 1978

Live/Solo/Compilation/Hot Tuna Albums Part Two 1979-2013

Essay: Why Flying In Formation Was So Special For The Jeffersons

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