Monday, 31 July 2017
Say It With Love/Bless The Wings (That Bring You Back)/Is This Heaven?/Say What You Mean/Lean On Me (Tonight)//Hope and Pray/Shadows On The Wall/Once Is Enough/Celtic Sonant/ Magic/Never Blame The Rainbows For The Rain
“Underneath the sea of doubt there’s a million voices shouting let me out!”
The Moody Blues were nothing if not ambitious weren’t they? This album promises to not just be another album but to offer us the ‘keys to the kingdom’, although we never actually find out where that kingdom is or where these keys came from. If this had been the days of old I’d have given the band the benefit of the doubt, assumed that this was a ‘House Of Four Doors’ style discussion about life and death and the universe and that we were being let into some big humanitarian secret. But in this context (1991, with this album released after a typical three-year gap sounding much the same as last time) I can’t help but wonder if the title is misleading and if that key opens the door not to a kingdom but to the cupboard where the band keep their synthesisers. You may have seen already on this site, dear readers, that the Moodies’ 1980s work isn’t exactly my cup of tea, replacing the glorious humane hope, guitars and go-anywhere sunny optimism of the band’s work in the 1960s with a diet of regimented synthesisers, production techniques and robotic monotony. Well, sorry to say this album is worse: at least ‘Long Distance Voyager’ had some great songs underneath the ‘surface’, ‘The Present’ had quirky ideas and an even quirkier front cover and ‘The Other Side Of Life’ and ‘Sur La Mer’ were performed with confidence, if not exactly subtlety. But ‘Keys To The Kingdom’ has none of these things, being a very soggy collection of wet songs performed with a distinct lack of direction or confidence to a template sound that’s only broken once for the album highlight when the drummer decides out of nowhere that he’d really like to tap dance. It’s a moment that stands out because it’s the only thing on this whole album you can imagine the 1960s Moody Blues doing: this album needs more eccentric moments, it’s just too ‘safe’ and the things we get are here because The Moodies are now an ‘institution’ that does these things rather than exploring their musical curiosity, with this an album that goes back to cementing the ‘empire’ with the keys to the kingdom rather than breaking new ground or simply basking in the glow of what the empire looks like now. ‘Keys To The Kingdom’ sounds like a colossus decadent (with synthesisers anyway) institution that’s got too big and is about to fall – which is, as it happens, not far off what happens, with this album such a distressing one to make that there won’t be another one along for eight years.
In fact maybe this is the sound of Rome falling as the band were coming apart while making it. After two albums where the band had real consistency for the first time since their early days (working with producer Tony Visconti over a bank of Patrick Morz keyboards) suddenly it’s all change in the Moodies kingdom and this record got made in three separate goes with three separate producers, always the sign of a band in disarray and none of these three parts sound right together. Oddly Tony Visconti produces the softer, quirkier material despite being chiefly behind the noisy pop of the past two albums (maybe the drummer tap-dancing is why he left?!) and this is the better part of the album with ‘Is This Heaven?’ ‘Say What You Mean’ and the autobiographical lament ‘Say It With Love’ recorded first easily the album’s strongest hand, even if I’m not entirely convinced by the band’s most prog rock moment ‘Celtic Sonant’ (which the band would have struggled to get right in 1966 without laughing never mind a quarter century later). As for the replacements, Alan Tarney is a logical choice, an Australian producer once a member of ‘The James Taylor Move’ (something in the way she...? maybe) who pretty much does what Tony Visconti did on the past two albums, not that far removed from his productions for Aha and Barbra Dickson (though thankfully very different to what he did with a rollerskating Cliff Richard in the 1980s!) Eurovision writer Christopher Neil is a more interesting choice though who got the job on the back of his work with Cher and Rod Stewart, not that you can really hear much of his input there either (chances are he happened to be free when the other two weren’t). It’s a surprise, though, that The Moodies didn’t simply produce themselves as they don’t seem to have much direction or been prepared to alter their sound all the way through the sessions, with ‘Keys’ most definitely not the sound of a confident band out to capture the MTV audience as had happened on the last two records (indeed the videos for this album are worse than the songs, with some peculiar ‘cut out dictionary’ posing on ‘Bless The Wings’ and an ugly collage style for ‘Say It With Love’, with both singles predictably flopping though the un-promoted third single ‘Lean On Me (Tonight)’ actually did ok.
A bigger change even that that, though, is what’s been happening in the synthesiser department. After a full decade of grooming Yes’ Patrick Moraz to be the band’s wunderkind destined to bring the band of older rockers fame and fortune and making his banks of keyboards the de facto sound of the all-new Moody Blues sound for several albums now, suddenly the band get a bit edgy over whether this is really what they want to be doing with their careers. Some of the reviews said that ‘Sur La Mer’ was a bit synth-heavy and over-laden and Moraz tended to be the member who came in for particular criticism, predictably you could say. The slow gradual switch from ‘wow these robotic synths sounds great!’ in 1981 had now become ‘Really? Synths again?’ by 1991 though before Britpop most people weren’t sure quite what to replace them with just yet (*hint* guitars still sound quite good *hint*). Suddenly Patrick’s style began to look less like the wild new frontier and more like the days of future passed and the band began wondering about giving up so much of the album to their only non-founding member. The resulting fallout is, even by the AAA’s standards full of Apple court cases and Pink Floyd walls, pretty spectacular. So spectacular it even made it onto TV – an odd move for a band who have always loved shunning the limelight. We said a few hundred reviews ago that it was always the bands who preached the most peace and love who had the biggest arguments and splits and that sadly is as true here as anywhere else, with Patrick taking the band to court for several million dollars in front of the cameras on the showbiz channel ‘Court TV’, for ten whole hours (one of their longest cases, now seen more or less complete on Youtube, not that you need to see any more than a sample five minutes to get the gist of it). Patrick’s argument was that the band had always promised him that he was a full-time member with equal rights, that there was a ‘plot’ to ‘ease’ him ‘out of the band’ and that they couldn’t get rid of him if he didn’t want to go. Their counter-argument was that there was no bit of paper that said this (even Patrick said it was only ever a verbal agreement, which would indeed be a very gentlemanly Moody Blues thing to do) and as they were called into the dock one by one (with Justin, John, Ray and Graeme all suddenly developing amazing amnesia over certain conversations that may or may not have happened) it became clear that things hadn’t just gone a little repairably wrong but horrifically badly. The band wanted out, the keyboardist wanted out too – but after many years of suffering in silence it took an international court case to make it so.
To be honest the keyboardist probably had a point: all the surrounding publicity in 1981 talked about Moraz – almost as big a star as the Moodies at the time thanks to ‘Yes’ - becoming a ‘full term’ member of the band and if this was a ‘wrong’ thing to think back then it seems odd it wasn’t corrected somewhere down the line. Patrick certainly appears on an awful lot of publicity shots and album credits where his name is in as big a print size as the others, which is usually a sign of how much of a ‘real’ band member you are or not. However for his part Patrick didn’t seem to like being a member of The Moody Blues very much and was in it more for the money than the music and the money wasn’t exactly flowing in by 1991 anymore. Shortly before the court case, during the first Tony Visconti sessions for this album, there was a damning interview Moraz gave to Keyboard World in which he complained at the band’s ‘stagnant growth’ (a bit rich given what The Moodies had accomplished compared to ‘Yes’ but it’s probably true their previous four albums aren’t the greatest they ever made), their resistance to the changes he wanted to make to their sound and the fact that in over ten years with the band he’d ‘only ever written half a song with the drummer – that was, like, my allowance’. Moraz concluded that the band were ‘no longer a musical challenge to me’ and that their recording techniques were very different, as he performed his contributions in one take where he could and would then sit around waiting for the others to take ‘six months’ to add their parts, time he felt he could have put to more creative use (that hairdo probably required a lot of maintenance too, to be fair). Remember, this is an interview given to a magazine that might have had a small readership then and now (well, still bigger than ours I guess but whose counting?!) but was quite influential among musicians of the day and these are complaints that hadn’t been addressed or aired out loud first. Reading it must have been a slap in the face for the other Moodies and suggests that things had been going sour for a whole now.‘Maybe they won’t like me for saying all this’ Moraz ends the article, ‘but I don’t care!’ the sound of a man at the end of his tether, not the beginning as he tried to point out to the lawyers. One wonders, reading the article, why Patrick even wanted to be part of this band anymore and how the band were supposed to respond. Was this a last minute coup to try and make them more interested in his ideas? If so then being pro-active was never the way to get The Moody Blues’ attention and in a rare act of solidarity and aggressiveness the band fired him accordingly three songs into the sessions (the mammoth bank of keyboards on ‘Say What You Mean’ being his last truly huge contribution to the Moodies’ catalogue). What with the loss of Mike Pinder to a new life on a new continent and the retirement of Ray Thomas through ill health, it marks the only time a Moody Blue ever leaves under a cloud. For the record Patrick won the court case, but for far less money than he was expecting, receiving $100,000 rather than the millions he expected, for which he had to pay a lot of court costs too and so he arguably would have made a lot more money working on even the paltry returns of this flop album. As so often happens in AAA legal battles, everyone was the loser and no one the winner: Patrick’s solo work never quite took off and The Moodies looked bad in the eyes of their fans by ignoring all talk of Moraz and even going to the lengths of having Patrick’s picture edited out of all re-issues from then on. It’s a little like Stalinist Russia, trying to spot where the ‘gaps’ are nowadays, only with leather jackets and 1980s hairdos.
One of Patrick’s arguments was that he’d brought The Moody Blues a distinctive sound that nobody else could possibly offer. Interestingly, rather than ignore his sound altogether, the rest of the band re-create it so well most casual fans probably wouldn’t even have noticed but Patrick wasn’t there (very casual fans didn’t know who Patrick was anyway). Notably of his replacements Bias Boshell and our old friend Paul Bliss (‘discovered’ by The Hollies in 1983 and who was later ‘borrowed’ by Graham Nash for work with CSN) one lasted for quite a while and the other is still with The Moody Blues today, even though their creative contributions are significantly less than Patrick’s ever were and even though they are very much treated as hired hands. The result is perhaps the Moodies’ most electronically-heavy LP (which is really saying something after the last four!) and which seems to be going out of its way to fill every bit of sound with extra flash, colour and noise, as if going ‘what do you mean the keyboardist has left under a controversial cloud? Gee we, uhh, hadn’t noticed!’ One wishes the Moodies had listened to their departing member and recorded this record a bit quicker and more spontaneously – even by the standards of ‘Sur La Mer’ this is overdub city with every track sweltering under the heat of a hundred casio keyboard bulbs; even the pretty ballads that really don’t need them and this time there are no exceptions to this noisy rule, not even a ‘Vintage Wine’ or three (‘oh-oh-oh’ indeed). The result is an album that’s often ugly, frequently lumpy and which sounded more dated on release than any of their supposedly old-fashioned hippie-era albums ever did, as far from the Moodies’ psychedelic and R and B authentic roots as it’s possible to get.
Oddly the songs aren’t ugly or lumpy at all, whatever the sound is like and in pure compositional form this is a much more interesting album than the last two, if only because it’s so different to the sad wistful world-wearyness we’re so used to hearing from them. By Moody Blues standards this is a happy, cheerful album where everything is warm and bright and sunny: it opens with a slice of slightly defensive autobiography about how the band always told their tales with love and will continue to do just that forevermore, whatever it takes; it moves on to offer us a happy ending on ‘Bless The Wings’ where after two albums of ‘knowing you’re out there somewhere’ the narrator and his old flame actually reunite and live happy ever after; ‘Is This Heaven?’ might well be the silliest, fluffiest, treacliest song The Moody Blues ever wrote and even though it sounds pretty stupid and a bit grumpy performed like this, it’s meant to be the happiest-go-lucky moment in the band’s career; ‘Lean On Me (Tonight)’ is a more typical and grown-up love song about co-dependence and romance that’s one of the band’s sweetest songs; ‘Hope and Pray’ is a noisy optimistic song about life being better that’s as hopeful as this most melancholy of bands have ever been; ‘Magic’ too is a silly pop song about how good and mesmerising love can be. ‘Keys’ might, perhaps, have been named because this feels like a beginner’s guide to the Moodies corridors, without any ‘off-putting’ heavy stuff. Which is odd when you think about it because the heavy off-putting stuff is what made the Moodies unique; other bands could offer lightweight pop trifles far better.
That causes its own problems too. This album really doesn’t sound light or fluffy at all with such a heavy and claustrophobic production. Though the lyric sheet reads like a love-fest, the sound you hear on playback is a nightmare, so that even when you’re heart is meant to soar and your toes are meant to tap it feels like you’re being interrogated in Guantanamo Bay with death-by-synthesiser. Perhaps aptly given the circumstances, the synths sound like a dark cold hard blot on the landscape, growling their way through the tracks as a counterpart to all this sunny joy and optimism. Just listen to the coda on ‘Say What You Mean’, the only vaguely un-joyful song on this whole album, which becomes downright sinister thanks to a mass of screaming synthesisers howling and a cod-Vincent Price voiceover from Justin Hayward (who has never sounded as uncomfortable!) It’s there elsewhere too though: ‘Say It With Love’ has an angry dark vibe beneath the words, partly from the relentless drum machine part and the synthesisers that are big and loud and almost angry, getting in the way of Justin playing his guitar and rise above them. For a song that’s meant to be celebratory and uplifting, it doesn’t half sound dark and sinister. ‘Is This Heaven?’ tries hard to be comedy music-hall but ends up sounding like one of those child pageants where the smiles are false and there’s a showbiz mum behind the scenes waiting to go ‘thwack!’ if anybody messes up. ‘Bless The Wings’ sounds less like a brilliant reunion both partners have been waiting for across the years and more like round two of a battle that never quite got finished. The slightly trippy ‘Celtic Sonant’ comes across as a mass of artificial roboticness so at odds with the light and playful vibe of the song, the most parodic of all Moodies recordings.‘Shadows On The Wall’ is a scary paranoid little song that doesn’t say much on page but the synthesisers somehow turn it from being a sketchy cartoon into a Hitchcock movie where the lighting alone suggests something dark and sinister. And ‘Never Blame The Rainbows For The Rain’ could have been a sweet little number had it actually, you know, featured more guitar-band rainbows and less synthesised rain. How odd, then, that what should be a light and fluffy album which the keyboard player really didn’t want to make ends up becoming the most dark and scary synth-filled album of the band’s career – even after he’s gone. If only The Moody Blues had waited a few years and done this ‘Britpop’ style...(It’s great to hear Justin’s return to lead guitar playing on ‘Say It With Love’, for instance, even if he is playing against the backdrop of a sodding drum machine!) I say this a lot on this website but especially for this album: please, somebody, remix this album so we can hear what it’s *really* like away from all that synthesised madness.
Or would this album sound flimsier? Hearing it en masse you sense that Patrick had a point, even if it was one he put badly. Remove the growling synthesisers, always doing their own thing, and what would this album be left with exactly? This record opens with a fan friendly self-referencing song and a sequel to past classics (both of which are comparatively easy to write) then moves on to a daft song about falling in love that involves tap-dancing, a silly song about hoping and praying, a silly song about magic and a silly song about rainbows. That might do for a comedy band (or even a weather channel or a magician show) but it’s now what The Moody Blues are all about. What happened to deep and emotional and poignant? All we get here is flimsy and jokey. Considering this is the band that once literally went to the moon and back to discuss the fate of mankind on our behalf and searched for the lost chord to unite humanity and solve all their problems, listening to an album where the highlight is the drummer tap-dancing does seem a little bit, well, pointless. There are other bands that do light and flimsy so well – here The Moody Blues sound as if they’re singing sweet and happy love songs while in the middle of having a blazing row or whilst they’re too distracted by doing their income teax returns or something: the sound and feel of this album just doesn’t go with what it’s trying to say. And yet because of the synths we don’t get the breathless energetic pop of the last two records either, which at least had energy and power if never finesse: this album just doesn’t have much going for it at all: one or two sweet but trivial songs, some weird use of synthesisers and a production that’s as ugly as anything in the AAA canon does not a classic or even a half-classic album make.
This troubled misguided album is, then, the nadir of the Moodies’ ‘normal’ canon (believe it or not Christmas record ‘December’ is a lot worse, but then that’s festive albums by prog rock bands for you...) However it’s not without some worth. ‘Is This Heaven?’ gets a lot of stick from fans, especially the tap-dancing sequence, but on its own merits it’s a very sweet and playful song, a worthy B-side. ‘Lean On Me (Tonight)’ might be the start in a long sequence of insincere copycat John Lodge ballads that make me as sick as a dog, but it’s by far the best of them – almost earnest enough to work in a cosy romantic way. ‘Say What You Mean’ doesn’t sound much when you hear it at random on your mp3 player’s shuffle button, but it really stands out nicely on the album, a sudden burst of focus and worry on an album that’s best described as ‘coasting’. That’s more or less it though: for the most part The Moody Blues have never sounded more like peasants, so offering us the keys to the kingdom – a title that might have fitted almost any other Moodies album – really doesn’t work here. This is, by old standards, horrid and even by 1991 standards is pretty rum stuff. Is this heaven? More like hell, on balance. What on earth happened?!
‘Say It With Love’ is one of those songs that’s 90% of the way to greatness but the remaining 10% is so bad it all rather gets in the way (and I would so love to talk about ‘Say It With Love’ with, err, love). The idea behind this Justin Hayward song is sound: asked repeatedly by interviewers over the years what the ‘message’ of The Moody Blues is, he re-shapes ‘All You Need Is Love’, with the idea that every song the Moodies ever wrote was sang with love. A clever lyric urges the fans to follow the same metaphor: ‘’Wherever you go, whatever you do, whatever you say, say it with love!’ Justin then tells the ‘story’ of the band like a parable – the band experienced how horrible the world could be, but fell in love with music and learnt that their ‘mission’ in life was to spread love through their songs and make the world a better place. Very very fine, very suitable for the last of the still-going hippie bands and very very sweet. But alas this song doesn’t sound like love – it sounds like war. The song opens with the most ridiculously ‘fake’ drum part in the whole of the Moodies’ catalogue, artificial and noisy – can a robot really say anything with love? The banks of synthesisers treat the famous Moody vocals so that they sound less like a humane group of loved-up troubadours and more like a choir of Daleks (the cry of ‘Let me out!’ sounds oddly like ‘exterminate!’) Even Justin’s guitar, which has been missing for such a long long time, is played slow and carefully, like it’s peeling off a bunch of pre-arranged notes instead of going for guts and glory in a passionate loved-up way. It’s not just the sound of this song either: the melody adds a curious Buddy Holly style hiccup in the middle that makes what’s a sweet and heartfelt message sound false and clumsy (‘I was thinking the way people do ‘bout the things that matter to – *breathe in* – me and you!’) This is also the ‘wrong’ melody for ‘those’ words (even though Justin wrote both): the lyrics want to be uplifting and rousing, like ‘All You Need Is Love’ meets ‘Hey Jude’; the melody is something dark and slightly sinister, more Rolling Stonesy, saying things with love 2000 light years from home. That’s probably why fans never really took to this, the album’s first single, even though it’s clearly meant to be a fan favourite: we get to eavesdrop when Justin falls in love with the guitars and he in turns shines the spotlight on us, getting the band’s energy and spirit from ‘the happy faces on the boys and girls’ where we all come together and bask in the beauty of life and ignore the hell happening around us. We ought to leave this clever, funny, poignant song feeling content and fulfilled. Instead, thanks to that drum sound a melody that sounds sour rather than sunny, we end up feeling that we’ve got a headache instead.
Equally on paper ‘Bless The Wings (That Bring You Back)’ sounds fantastic. After two records teasing us with songs about old flames who pass each other like ships in the night (‘Your Wildest Dreams’ and ‘I Know You’re Out There Somewhere’) finally the lovers meet, patch up their differences and live forever after. This should sound really special right? Wrong!!! The title blesses the ‘wings’ that bring the narrator’s lover back into his arms but the rest of the song is more about the distance that kept them apart and how it was destined to be that way. Instead of concentrating on soaring in each other’s arms, this couple spend too long talking about the desert that grew up between them and the ‘dust of many centuries’ that should have been long put to bed. This couple don’t feel as if they were destined to get back together again or that they feel particularly passionate about each other when they meet, given that this is one of Justin’s dullest and curiously empty songs, slowed down to a crawl in places. Yet again it’s a song that sounds different to what it’s trying to say to us: the words say ‘The more life keeps us apart, the more our love will grow’; the music says ‘There’s a gulf between us, ‘our hearts divided by an ocean’, as a slow mournful guitar part spits feathers throughout the rest of the song. The metaphor of love being a ‘bird’ is also rather strained as it strains to be ‘free’ because we don’t get what the next part of the story is: Why can’t the pair be ‘free’? Is one or both of them in a relationship? Presumably they live a long way from each other now and met by chance so – will one of them have to move? Is there a difficult elderly parent in tow to look after? This is a song that tries to reach out with open arms but whose brain is already trying to be logical and can’t work out what is for the best. It’s an oddly ugly song by Moodies standards, deeply forgettable and surprisingly unlikeable considering that it’s wrapping up one of the most celebrated trilogies in their canon. We spent all those years hoping these characters would come together just for that?!
Thankfully the playful ‘Is This Heaven?’ is unashamedly telling us and showing us the same thing. This is a clever fluffy love song about how wonderful the world looks from the eyes from someone in love, the narrator re-acting to his lover’s coos that the world looks suddenly much more ‘beautiful’ suddenly. It’s very uncharacteristic for the sort of band who treat love and romance with the long dark night of the soul that’s ‘Nights In White Satin’ rather than something light and fluffy but it works – well nearly! In truth what’s a cutesiepie riff when played on a very 1950s style guitar is awful when screeched by synth-violins that are so 1980s and the ending goes on way way way too long. But the sudden power that comes in on the strident middle eight that points to just how long this couple have been alone and starved of love (‘I know that Heaven waits for those whose love is true...’) is a masterstroke, suddenly turning this unusually happy-go-lucky song into a more typical Moodies fare of desperation and passion. And even the tap-dancing, an idea ridiculed ever since fans first heard about it, is actually rather sweet: no this part wouldn’t work on any other more dark and serious and inhibited Moody song, but here it’s a brilliant invention: of course this narrator would suddenly get up and dance and whistle while he’s doing it: the normal rules of how he lived his life have been relaxed and suddenly tap-dancing is the most natural instinctive form of expression. Listen out too for the yell, rather buried in the mix, of ‘I love this world!!!’, which is the real message of this song. As on ‘Say It With Love’ and so many other Moodies songs the world is a very scary place indeed sometimes. But not now. Not anymore. The narrator can only think about his beloved and after a lifetime of searching suddenly all the stars in the sky are blowing him kisses. No this isn’t the Moodies’ best song, it isn’t dark or deep or brave and the heavy drumbeat and pulsating synthesisers over-laden what should be small and humble. But it is very very sweet and very very cute and on this low quality album that’s enough to make this easily the best song of the set.
The second best song is ‘Say What You Mean?’, one last return to the ‘old’ sound with Patrick Moraz’ sudden free-flowing synth tickles firmly up front and a repeat of the 1980s Moodies vibe that the world is a dark and scary place. Here too the melody and lyrics are going in the same direction: the melody builds verse by verse, getting more desperate and unhinged as it struggles to cope with a dark and anxious world; meanwhile the lyrics are the sound of the lover more and more desperate to put things right and getting increasingly desperate to get through to his sweetheart that he really is there for her. In typical Moodies tradition, the lovers’ biggest problem is that they don’t know how to communicate with each other and in true English traditions of politeness have become trapped in their own separate worlds. ‘Think about the words that you’re using!’ snaps Justin at the beginning, before urging his lover to talk directly – no ego games, no power plays, no passive aggression, what do you want from me?! Along the way Justin’s narrator promises to play his part – he’s always going to be ‘by your side’, he’s going to be the most trustworthy person she’s ever met, she’s going to be so safe with him. But in return he needs her to leave her isolated room of darkness and come talk to him – separately they’re doomed to disaster, but together they can conquer everything. An urgent bouncy synth riff, which shows just how good Patrick’s sound was to the Moodies on their darker, scarier songs, is a good reflection of what’s going on in the song, with sudden peals of notes that dart around the song as if they’re just out of our ear-shot, straining to tell us something we can’t quite understand. I’ve often wondered, given the passive-aggression between the band at this point, whether this was Hayward’s attempt to say ‘sorry’ and offer out an olive branch, belatedly giving Patrick more to do on a song than he’s had in a long time while encouraging him to air his grievances out loud (this could, of course, be complete nonsense). Justin too is at his best on a song that finally gives him something to do that’s more than just romantic crooning, while at last an untreated choir of Moody Blues sounds excellent (especially John’s strident harmony and Ray’s comedy chain-gang of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’). Alas what seems like it’s going to be a second really strong song in a row is rather undercut by ‘Part Two’. After a sudden swirl of ‘say what you mean what you say...’(which sounds like a perfectly fine ending to me!) we get a slower, darker, duller re-tread of the synth’s familiar sigh. And then Justin starts talk-singing, sounding deeply unconvincing as he tries to croon his way through a Mills and Boon novel that’s undignified by Moodies standards and talks about what must be the weirdest night of love-making around (‘Let us walk into the forest only witnessed by the moon, and the breeze that once would chill us now excites...and we’ll touch the secret places as the Earth beneath us breathes and the raw exquisite ecstasy rushes in...’ Err, is everything alright, Justin?!) We said it before on our 1980s reviews but somehow The Moody Blues managed to avoid the pitfalls of most hippie bands of their style and 1960s era (their spoken words tend to be yelled or screamed or are funny or sound as if they fit) and yet fell into every single one twenty years later (this part is awkward as hell and makes no sense – it’s the sort of thing non-fans assume are on every Moodies album!) Still, for half a song at least, this is pretty good stuff.
Against the odds ‘Lean On Me (Tonight)’ makes it three decent songs in a row. John Lodge’s big moment on the album, it has the pomp and seriousness of ‘Isn’t Life Strange?’ with the cosy intimacy of ‘Ride My See-Saw’ which adds up to one of the bassist’s better love songs. Like much of the album it works because it’s simple: John never really gets to say much more than ‘I’ll always be there for you’ and a few asides that even though the couple in the song are getting older he still adores her as much as the night they first met. The melody fits nicely too again, going from quite cosy warmth to cor-blimey-this-is-powerful in the middle,. Topped off by a rousing Justin Hayward guitar solo that’s far more exciting than the part on ‘Say It With Love’. What this sing doesn’t have is ambition: you know exactly where it’s going from first bar to last and there’s nothing said in this song that hasn’t been said elsewhere, usually a little better if I’m honest. There’s also a curious part of the song that never seems to rhyme where it should (a rhyming scheme of ABABABCDEF that really stands out every time I hear it – it’s most notable on the line about the ‘Southern Cross’ which honestly doesn’t rhyme with anything). Still, this song doesn’t get much wrong and was more than enough to make John’s many fans swoon (Justin usually gets all the romantic songs to sing!) and it’s also easily the best performed song on the album with a candidate for Lodge’s greatest ever lead vocal, sweet and innocent yet deeply in love.
Over on side two things aren’t looking quite so good. ‘Hope and Pray’ must surely be the last gasp of the sort of song we used to have a lot back in the 1980s: a sudden rushed rock song who gets the aggression not from the tempo or the urgency of the performance but the manic fake drumbeat that sounds as if the robot drum machine is about to keel over at any second. As with the opening two songs, that and the dark, eerie claustrophobic melody are a poor match for the lyric that is more unusually sunny upbeat optimism. Basically the narrator is lonely and dreaming of a loved one – we don’t know if she’s dead, divorced or if she’s just popped off to the shops but either way the narrator keeps starting up when he sees a shadow on the wall or hears a noise in the distance and he really hopes it’s his loved one. A chorus tries to add some depth to proceedings, nicking lots of ideas from Justin’s big solo hit ‘Forever Autumn’ as he talks about the months passing by outside his window and how inside it is always Winter and how he’s not quite sure how he ended up here, alone and miserable, when he had seemed so in control so recently. He feels that this great love affair has all been a big dream and only the love letters he still cherishes tell him otherwise. This song is still bouncy though, the ‘hope and pray...everyday!’ catchy chorus undoing the knots that have been tightly wound by the verses and making this another surprisingly bouncy song. The problem is it doesn’t sound lonely or despairing enough – there’s no sense that the narrator really has had his heart broken and instead this all sounds like ‘just’ a pop song – and with such a forgettable melody and clichéd lyrics not a terribly inventive pop song at that!
John returns for another song about ‘Shadows On The Wall’. John’s narrator is in love, but he’s already worried about things that seem to be going wrong that he can’t quite put his finger on. He feels happy and content and his missus is everything he dreamed she would be and shines he bright light in his dark world, but why is it, out of the corner of his eye, that he can see shadows and hints of things going wrong? What could have been an interesting song is, again, rather let down by the fact that the melody and lyric are saying two different things. This piece sounds on face value like it’s as stupidly silly and flimsy a love song as any the Moodies ever made: it has *that*cheesy synth accompaniment (which is sounding more dated song by song by now), another silly hiccup of a Justin guitar solo and harmonies that sound as if they’ve been parachuted in from a Duran Duran or Take That recording. There’s no hint anywhere, not even in John’s vocal, that he’s actually singing about love going wrong not right. It’s all a little bit over-written too: ‘On the sea of mediocrity drifting from a distant shore...’ begins the last verse, which says in thirty garbled words that ‘Driftwood’ said so succinctly in far less. If this was another band or a group making their first album I’d let it go, but this is another song like ‘Say What You Mean Part II’ that falls in so many traps of cliché you can’t help but wonder why a band as experienced and established as The Moody Blues didn’t see it coming.
Next up would on the CD (but not the LP) version be ‘Once Is Enough’ but – fittingly – once is indeed more than enough for the album sessions’ worst song and we’ve previously reviewed it as part of our ‘non album songs’ last year (when we were feeling strong enough to tackle it!) So instead it’s the long awaited return of Ray Thomas after eight very long years with ‘Celtic Sonant’. For a Brummie band (right in the heart of the UK) The Moodies were always very into their Celtic roots, with Scottish, Irish and Welsh overtones in much of their work (especially anything with Ray’s flutes). Here Ray finally spends a whole song discussing a possible Celtic past and a lyric that seems to have been ‘stolen’ from Tarot cards (cups overflowing, chariot wheels moving, ‘fools’ making it round – there’s no ‘Hanged Man’ though, the card I seem to get every bleeding time!) Many Moody Blues songs are right on the limit of what even a prog rock band can get away with, but this one is so far over the line it’s unintentionally hilarious. What can you say about a song that opens with the greeting ‘Deep peace of the running wave to you’?! (Especially as that’s the ‘wrong’ greeting, more American Indian than Celt). Or some garbled metaphors about ‘open pages’ that left a poet ‘crying’ or a man ‘standing guard’ as the oceans blow for centuries (I bet his legs are tired) or how ‘every star in the sky is there for a reason’ (what reason?!) Throughout the song we keep returning to the central theme of wheels going round – but why, what for? There’s no sense in this song of any progression or indeed any anything. Even Ray’s lyrics don’t rhyme anywhere (something you can do in poetry but which just sounds wrong with the ‘balance’ and setup of a song), that particularly stands out as he’s given himself such a naturally nursery-rhymey sing-songy melody to go with it. Oh and this song is not really a ‘sonant’ – that’s ‘a speech sound that by itself makes a syllable or subordinates to itself the other sounds in the syllable’ apparently (who says you don’t learn anything on this site?!), which pretty much includes every word ever but less so the sort of words in this song like ‘wheel’ or lines like ‘one man stood firm’ that are all one syllable words. Ray, meanwhile, sounds demented on his first vocal since ‘Sorry’ many many moons ago. At least, unlike most of this curious album, the track has ambition galore but it’s bravery isn’t matched by the piece which doesn’t have anything to say or any really ear-catching ways of saying it. Sorry if that review’s a bit below-the-belt (it’s good to have Ray back in any form), but truly, this song has nothing to say about anything and is itself below-the-Celt.
Typically, the other Moodies try to pretend that the last track never happened and blow it away with the catchiest song on the album. John’s ‘Magic’ is another flimsy silly song about being in love. After years of having romance as the highest form of expression in the universe, it’s odd to hear it suddenly turned into nothing more than a magic trick as John’s narrator looks in the eyes of his partner and feels a special something, a ‘mystery’ to this day because he can’t explain it in words. Alas what starts off a good track (with a grungy guitar riff from Justin and more noisy synths which at least sound as if they ought to be noisy and extroverted) soon ends up a boring repetitive recording where the chorus ‘work your magic on me!’ gets repeated way too many times for comfort. And I mean way too many times – you’ll find yourself parroting this line in your sleep and it isn’t even the best line in the chorus, never mind the song. And check out that vocal: at least Ray sounded vaguely human on ‘Celtic Sonant’, but John sings this track in a key that’s somewhere between his natural singing voice and his high falsetto, coming out of it sounding squeakier than he’s ever been. That isn’t magic, its black magic and if his lovelife is doing that to him fulltime then he clearly needs a doctor. Strangely, though, for such a noisy song that’s so desperate to have your attention all the way through, this track’s biggest problem is that it is all so terribly bland.
The album then ends with the first Justin-Ray collaboration since ‘Watching and Waiting’ twenty-two years before. Alas, like so much of this album, it’s all a bit fake: Ray wrote the flute part to Justin’s song, something that in the days of old would just be what a bandmate did to make the overall band sound better without even thinking, but nowadays is such a big thing for the creatively blocked flautist that he gets a whole co-credit. ‘Never Blame The Rainbows For The Rain’ is an odd song, even for the oddest side of the Moodies’ oddest ‘normal’ record. It’s moral is that you can’t have happiness without sadness and you should never ‘blame’ the good things in your life for the bad things that happen. Confused? Me too. Unfortunately though it’s hard to concentrate on how overwhelmingly poor the lyrics are (‘The last whispered wish of age is to live it all again’) when the whole song sounds so unbelievably cheesy and ‘wrong’. Justin is going for his most doe-eyed vocal yet, joined by John’s harmonies at their treacliest, while the synthesiser washes add a whole layer of detergent fakeness that ‘purifies’ the full thing but in a very false-sending artificial way. This song is nothing less than the equivalent of a Conservative party political broadcast where they stare into the camera and try to brainwash you. It’s icky, tacky and horrid and easily the worst song on the Moodies’ worst LP. At least the flute part adds something of the old Moodies sound, but what disappoints most is that this doesn’t sound like the Moodies at all but every other half-baked no-good pop band of the era who were more interested in selling records than connecting with fans’ hearts. This whole song sounds as if it was written from the first to be a ‘standard’, but it has nothing to say and the way it says nothing is utterly dreadful.
This album ends with a verse about how a ‘whirlpool of doubt’ can ‘spin you around’ so that you miss ‘passion’s spray’. That’s a typically convoluted way of saying that it’s all too easy to feel ‘lost’ when things aren’t going your way – and that’s pretty much my verdict on this album. After a decade of having painfully re-shaped the Moody Blues sound to something that was now decidedly out of fashion and with disagreements in the ranks (with Patrick disappearing and both Ray and Graeme barely doing more than appearing on the back cover) The Moodies (well, Justin and John for the most part) aren’t quite sure where to go on from here. They try to offer us a third blast of songs in the ‘Other Side Of Life’ and ‘Sur La Mer’ mode but the production is less daring and the songs less suitable, without ever quite establishing their own separate identity. This is a silly, dotty, loony, empty album that’s made to sound fierce and harsh thanks to the overall sound and it’s also an intimate, sparse sounding collection of songs delivered with the manic glare of a gorilla on acid. There are some good songs and in many ways the first side of ‘Keys’ is the most enjoyable Moodies set since side one of ‘The Present’, but the second is so woefully wrong and misguided that in many ways it’s a blessing that the next record will be delayed by some eight years. The Moodies seemed to have made this record more because they felt they had to than because they wanted to and nobody – the band members there and absent, the producers there and absent – seem to have had a clue about how to take this already dodgy set of new songs and make the most out of them. The band just don’t take their own advice and occasionally across this album do you get the sense that they really are saying what they mean or meaning what they say. This record may offer the keys to the kingdom but it was also the key to finally breaking my heart as a Moody Blues fan who’d already struggled to give them the benefit of the doubt across two other needlessly relentlessly empty poppy albums. Thankfully things will get better, as the band dump the synths altogether to return to orchestras for the first time in thirty years and the rest will do the band good. But for a while there it really did look as if the Moodies catalogue was going to end on one of the single worst albums in the AAA catalogue, matched in it’s pure awfulness only by Paul McCartney’s ‘Chaos and Creation In The Backyard’, The Monkees’ ‘JustUs’, The Beach Boys’ ‘That’s Why God Made The Radio’ and The Hollies’ ‘Staying Power’.