Monday, 21 April 2014
The Moody Blues "Long Distance Voyager" (1981) (Album Review)
The Moody Blues "Long Distance Voyager" (1981)
The Voice/Talking Out Of Turn/Gemini Dream/In My World//Meanwhile/22,000 Days/Nervous/Painted Smile/Reflective Smile/Veteran Cosmic Rocker
'Long Distance Voyager' is for The Moody Blues where it all goes so right - and all so wrong. To fans at the time it was great to see 'our' band become such a massive commercial hit, even in America (for the first time in nine years!) with two hit singles given more airplay than the band had had since the 1960s and proof that even a group as linked to a 'past' sound as the Moodies could sound contemporary and vital 20 years on. Of all the twists and turns in the Moodies' long distance voyage, it's here that the band hit their highest commercial peak and the success of this album means that the band are all but guaranteed the chance to make records into the 1990s. However, viewing the record now in the context of everything that's to come - three more albums in the 1980s, two in the 1990s and one in the 00s - and it sounds less like a re-birth and more like a death. Having successfully navigated the leap from their 'old' sound to the 'new' the Moody Blues also lose much of their character and become just another anonymous band-with synthesiser bands from the 1980s who get left behind once new and better technology comes along to displace them. 'Long Distance Voyager' is a remarkable achievement for a one-off, with the four-piece Moody Blues and their new computer whizzkid friend Patrick Moraz coming up with an album that any contemporary band would have been pleased to make - but as part of the band's long voyage it now sounds like a path to nowhere, with a cul-de-sac rather than a great new continent to explore.
On the plus side, The Moody Blues sound very much like a 'band' during the making of this record, the first 'reunion' album to be made the way the band wanted it to be, back in their old 'Threshold' studios (1978's 'Octave' was an unhappy album spoiled by the move to America, a fire in the recording studios and the loss of founding member Mike Pinder during the making of it - Pinder probably feared that the band would end up exactly like it did on 'Long Distance Voyager', although the level of its success probably caught him by surprise as much as the remaining Moodies). For the penultimate time in their history, the Moodies carry on their marvelous democratic writing processes where all four band members get involved more or less equally and the vocals are also split fairly evenly ('Octave' was dominated by Justin Hayward like never before). There are little touches here and there of their old sound - flutes, harmonicas, moog synthesizers - that get largely filed away in the cupboard after this. Better yet, the band sing together on several songs instead of featuring just the song's composers, single-handedly putting this album above the over-dub fests to come. In short, there are worse ways of going about recording a reunion album in the 1980s than 'Long Distance Voyager', almost all of which were tried by other AAA groups somewhere (Neil Young's 'Re-Ac-Tor', The Beach Boys' 'Keepin' The Summer Alive' and the run of 1980s Kinks albums starting with 'Low Budget' spring to mind) and most of which sounded like they were blundering in the dark with a new alien sound more than the Moodies do here. 'Voyager' is a confident little album that seems to know exactly what it's doing and even the trio of songs at the 'heart' of this record glimpsing at that typical Moodies vulnerability ('In My World' 'Meanwhile' and 'Nervous') can't dent the feeling across this album of knowing exactly how to get the job done. Most 1960s bands still going by 1981 sound a little adrift, but the SS Moody is still steaming full ahead, confident of going head-to-toe with all the younger, more 'with-it' bands.
Many fans talk about hearing a 'theme' on this record that ties it all together - but even by Moodies standards the one on 'Long Distance Voyager' is a bit vague. The striking album cover - an un-named Victorian painting 'borrowed' from Glasgow's Arts Union and daubed with a modern space station satellite (just below the album title - it's very faint, you have to know it's there to see it) - is indeed very Moodies, a statement of how man had evolved and matured - and not (half the Victorian crowd seem to be 'spying' on each other - which is exactly what the satellite is doing to them in turn). As a point of interest, why is a one-man band performing right next to a Punch and Judy 'box' - surely the pair are drowning each other out?! Anyway, this cover is similar to the one on 'The Present' featuring an apparent scene from Ancient Greece that then appears to be futuristic when the gatefold sleeve is fully opened up - a cover I prefer because the 'Voyager' one is perhaps a little too subtle (a quick shout out to my 'friends' from that cover, Catalunia The Third and Habridan the Seventh, although sadly 'Voyager' didn't come with a futuristic pendant that could save life, the universe and everything - see http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/news-views-and-music-issue-98-moody.html for more examples of why your humble scribe is sounding a bit mad right now). I kind of get the link across the songs - man is pre-programmed to some extent and controlled by an inner 'The Voice', doomed to make the same mistakes ('Talking Out Of Turn'), before finally ending up in the right place spiritually ('Gemini Dream') and at home ('In My World'). 'Meanwhile' even if we achieve perfection we'll always regret not getting it sooner, we've only got an average of '22,000 Days' to do everything we need to on Earth and quite often we'll have to do things we aren't brave enough to face ('Nervous') or act like we don't care ('Painted Smile' and 'Reflective Smile'). However if we carry through the 'voyage' for long enough we'll all end up 'Veteran Cosmic Rockers', loved and adored for having achieved something stupid and still afraid of our own mortality. Note too how so many of these songs feature the first real mention of the 'nostalgia' that's going to earn the Moodies a few hit singles later in the decade on songs like 'I Know You're Out There Somewhere' and 'Your Wildest Dreams'; notably, though, it's this album that features a line about letting a person 'slip through my fingers' in not one but two songs. A pretty neat summary of the human condition, then, even if I've probably cobbled together a few songs that weren't intended to be part of any theme - so why does it all sound so unemotional?
The elephant in the room with this LP is that, even for the decade that made a virtue of such sounds, there's a harshness and coldness about this album that's particularly wrong given how lush and warm the Moodies always were in their 'first' career. The contemporary sound of 1978 (when 'Octave' was released) and 1981 (when 'Voyager' was released) wasn't all that different, but the change in sound is remarkable: 'Octave' is an old friend dressed up in a slightly more fashionable wardrobe because that's what the music business dictates; 'Long Distance Voyager' is the musical equivalent of seeing an old friend undergo plastic surgery - there's something ever so slightly creepy about it all. Even closing track 'Veteran Cosmic Rocker' - a song clearly designed to conjure up the band's heyday with exotic Eastern influences, daft psychedelic lyrics about drug-taking and the title nod to the band's increasing age - today sounds like a candidate for the most 1980s recording ever made: everyone's playing through a dense fog of digital synthesisers, artificial drums and exotic sound effects; and remember this is the song on the album that's actually trying to sound a little like an old relic, so you can imagine what the rest of the recordings on this album sound like. The few fans who think like I do tend to blame new boy Patrick Moraz for being too busy on the keyboards, but that's not really the main problem: synthesisers appeared on lots of other AAA albums of the period and actually make more sense on the Moodies' albums than most (Pinder had pioneered first the mellotron and then the moog - it makes sense that without him the Moodies get an equal pioneer of period technology). Moraz, only a few years younger than the rest of the band, was most famous at the time for his work with Yes - a prog rock group musically very like the Moodies, so the 'newer', more modern sound on this record is a much a leap for him as it is for the rest of the band (and must have been at their or their producer's request). Later Moraz's contributions will get to be a problem, namely when they're drowning out Hayward's guitar - but here they're used sparingly, to complement the other musicians rather than drown them out as per later. A likelier candidate for my wrath is producer Pip Williams - brought in to replace longterm producer Tony Clarke - and yet he's also in charge for the rather good follow-up album 'The Present', a neglected warm and adventurous album full of the sort of emotion this record doesn't have.
The Moodies have never talked about the influence, but there was one big album of 1981 that sounds very much like this one - The Human League's best-selling 'Dare'. The first real mainstream album to rid itself of analogue technology and replace it with digital (Devo are anything but mainstream and Neil Young's 'Trans' won't be for another year yet), 'Dare's big selling point is that musically it's cold and austere yet lyrically it's full of warm songs about the weaknesses of the human condition, delivered by Phil Oakey in a voice that's caught between a cyberman and your aunty telling you off. Was 'Long Distance Voyager' an attempt to replicate that feeling? Certainly the idea of a disembodied voice from the future telling you how to overcome the weakness of humanity in the present is a very Moodies-ish one (remember the 'great computer' telling us how to think in 'On The Threshold Of A Dream?') and '22,000 Days' in particular sounds a dead ringer for 'Dare': edgy, paranoid and slightly sinister as a mechanical clock designed to last forever ticks down to our last seconds. If true - and I stress this is my comparison not one the band have ever mentioned - that would also explain why this album doesn't quite work. The Human League had started as an all-out avant garde band that nobody bought and so their reinvention as a synthesiser-band-with-cocktail waitress-singers came as a surprise to only a few hundred people. The Moody Blues, however, were beloved of millions who were all eagerly waiting for what the band might do on their first 'unified' album in nine years and who probably weren't ready for the change (I know I wasn't). However there are other Moody albums that do funny things with technology - 'The Other Side Of Life' and 'Sur La Mer' to name two of them - and while they're even worse than this record they do at least sound 'like' the Moody Blues rather than their android cousins.
'Long Distance Voyager's other problem is the songs. Admittedly some of them are more than up to standard: 'The Voice' is everything a Moodies song should have been in 1981, slightly sinister and lost sounding and about the inner 'voice' that keeps us on the straight and narrow, 'In My World' - the one song here that does sound like the Moodies of old, till the coda at least - is as gorgeous a romantic love ballad as any in Justin Hayward's canon and '22,000' is a paranoid Graeme Edge song that makes a great virtue of the cold and austere backing. Lyrically, however, this is the work of a band who suddenly sound a lot more sure of themselves than they ever used to - the worry, nerves and fears of the 'old' band as heard on practically every song on their original seven albums (and frequently on their eighth and most of the solo work by all five Moodies) only crop up here on John Lodge's 'Nervous', which is about as smug a song about worry as you'll ever hear. The album's biggest hit single, the curious and muddled 'Gemini Dream' written by Justin and John together, which is loosely about the band's story to date, even proudly boasts 'we're here - the time is right!' (the last time the band made a statement like that it was 1965 and Denny Laine was still in the band). While Justin is fairly immune from the problems ('In My World' and 'Meanwhile' both sound like the days of old and 'The Voice' makes a virtue of the antiseptic settings) and Graeme clearly has half an ear on the way the album is shaping up ('22,000 Days'), his partners have greater problems adjusting to the new sound. John Lodge re-invented this 'new' Moodies sound single-handedly on Octave's 'Steppin' In A Slide Zone' so his struggle here seems particularly odd: 'Talking Out Of Turn' and 'Nervous' are both ballads about vulnerability that here sound far too big and far too 'distant' somehow, as if they are human emotions programmed by a computer. Ray Thomas tries to offer his usual blend of self-effacing humour but this suddenly seems so out of kilter with what his partners are doing that his 'concept' trio of songs at the end - 'Painted Smile' 'Reflected Smile' and 'Veteran Cosmic Rocker' sound less like a laugh at his own expense as at the fans who used to believe all this sort of stuff (the decision to get DJ Dave Symonds to 'read out' the middle piece rather than getting the band to do it exaggerates this effect), laughing at sad clowns on stage pretending to be happy (or is that the other way around?) and old rockers loved by crowds for doing nothing more than flash a 'peace' sign on stage. While no less funny than Ray's usual songs, it's hard to warm to the narrator in all three cases - and that's the trouble of the album as a whole really; impressive as a lot of it is it's hard to really warm to any of it.
The sleeve notes for this album's CD re-issue in 2008 talk about this album talk about it 'being apparent that a fine album had been delivered'. That's undoubtedly what record label Polydor were thinking (technically 'Long Distance Voyager' was on the band's longstanding 'Threshold' imprint but Polydor - who'd recently bought the Threshold label from Decca - still distributed the records and got a share of royalties) and may well have been what the band were thinking - after all, this is the first Moodies record to capture a snapshot of the life and times the band were living in since 'To Our Children's Children's Children' launched into space in parallel with the moon landings and featured the same mixture of bravado at the feat and nervousness over where to go next as much of the Western world did. However, I think most of us can agree that the years 1967-72 (when the Justin and John era Moodies had their 'first career') were far more interesting than 1981 was and like many records from that era 'Voyager' actually sounds more dated now than records from fifteen odd years earlier do. The record is undoubtedly successful at conjuring up its era - the mind games of the cold war, the slightly threatening feel of a decade that was moving at a quicker technological pace than most felt was comfortable, an era when bigger meant better and when dreams and hopes for as peaceful future had been largely squashed by arms races and a bigger divide between West and East than ever before. Had this record been released by many a contemporary band - dare I say it even fellow AAA band the Jefferson Starship - I might have quite liked it. There's no denying too that this album was so successful and turned a whole new audience on to the Moody Blues who'd never have been seen dead buying the earlier, peace-and-love albums their mums and dads had once bought. But the Moody Blues don't belong in this climate - their music should be warm, both human and humane, full of the vulnerabilities that all of us share and hope that in the future one day we can come together and solve them. 'Voyager' is an album without much hope and as accurate a reflection of 1981 as that makes it, the new sound is a terrible shock for long-term fans like me. As a one-off 'Voyager' is an interesting album with two excellent songs, not many bad ones and the answer to the question 'what would a band from the 1960s sound like when totally in synch with the times and technology of a later era?' As the template for every Moodies record to come 'Voyager' is unforgivable and the start of a whole new band who shares only basic DNA with the original band we all know and love - not till parts of 1999's 'Strange Times' will the band finally begin to sound a little like their old selves again.
'The Voice' is a stunning opener and sets a trend of Justin writing a rather claustrophobic opening track for the album that runs to this day - if not quite what you'd expect from the Moody Blues. The atmosphere here is cold and heavy, a close cousin of 'The Present's 'Blue World' but without the human 'chuckle' in the voice. Hayward's narrator is as lost as any in his long pantheon of hapless vulnerables but here there's no warmth to be found here as he asks the heavens for advice. Wishing he'd learnt more 'life lessons' at school, the narrator asks for advice to overcome something he can't handle and sadly reflects on how our world of 'dreams' results makes as many people sad as makes them happy. All the narrator can trust to tell him the 'way' is an inner voice - and he's not even sure if he trusts that any more after recent heartbreak. Each verse moves suddenly, jarringly up a key just to add to the tension and making for a good musical mirror of his own sobs. Unusually for Hayward the song doesn't have a straightforward middle eight but two sets of lyrics sung to the same tune, a clever trick that really jolts the listener by giving them something new near the end of the song ('Ands how many words have I got to say?...') On any previous Moodies albums 'The Voice' would have been a great rocker filled with screaming guitars but here it sounds - to quote another Moodies song - 'Lost In A Lost World'. The dominant sound here are Moraz's synthesisers which blow through the track like a cold wind (a sound effect of exactly that in the opening few bars sets the tone) and sound so different to the moog last heard on 'Octave' this must have come as a huge shock to the band's fanbase. For one of only two occasions across this album, the effect seems wholly suitable to a song that's about being lost in an alien world and Hayward adds just the right touch of humanity in his 'scared' vocal and nicely grungy guitar solo. For me, though, the later 'Blue World' is a superior song on the same theme and 'The Voice' doesn't quite make enough use of the band (do John and Ray even appear on this recording? - the vocals sound suspiciously like Hayward multi-tracked). Still, 'The Voice' is a catchy and impressively contemporary release that deserved to do better when released as the second single from the album (it reached #15 in America but surprisingly flopped in Britain).
'Talking Out Of Turn' is a sweet but overlong John Lodge song that was released as the album's third single and missed the charts completely. A very Moodies-ish song about accidentally insulting someone you love without meaning to and the narrator realising that he's been doing all the 'taking' in the pair's relationship, the song would have made for a delightful understated three minute album track in any earlier era - here, though, it's transformed into a 7:19 magnum opus that simply goes on and on (and on). Lodge turns in a lovely double-tracked vocal (the vocal effects on this album suit his voice a lot more than his colleagues') and Hayward turns in another fine guitar solo, while the 'battle' between the strings and synths in an old-world new-world battle that mirrors the 'fight' between the partners in the lyrics is a clever idea. However all that good work gets thrown away past the four minute mark when the band come in for another solo, then chant 'talk...talk...talking out of turn!' for what seems like an hour and then the orchestra sweep in to take over the song just to make sure we noticed they were there and the Moodies were doing a 'Days Of Future Passed' again (yes we did notice them, guys, they worked better in the background). While the opening flurry of synths from Moraz are impressive and ear-catching, like much of the album his work is simply lover-used on a song that would have benefitted from more warmth not coldness. A bit of a missed opportunity this one, with too many 'wrong' sounded instruments 'talking out of turn'.
'Gemini Dream' is a puzzle too. The Moodies' best-selling song ever in America (peaking at #12) it is - by their standards - an awfully noisy and empty sounding song, dominated by croaking 'frog' type synths and Justin and John croaking tunelessly on the vocal. Although credited to both singers, 'Gemini Dream' sounds closer in style to Lodge's work with the same oompah-drumb rock band lyrics he'll make his own later in the decade. For such a straightforward-sounding song, though, there's quite a lot of layers going on in the lyrics. The last time Justin and John worked together this closely was on the 'Blue Jays' record, originally intended to be a record Justin made with Mike Pinder before the latter pulled out at the last minute. We speculated on our review for the 'Blue Jays' album that much of it sounded like an open letter to Pinder, hurt at his decision to pull out but keen to stay friends; 'Gemini Dream' sounds like an update of what happened to the band post-'Octave' (the alum Pinder pulled out of halfway through - which was particularly awkward given that most of it was recorded in his garage!) Lines like 'Long time, no see, short time for you and me' sounds like the band getting to grips with the idea that Pinder will never be a full part of the band again. 'So far so good' the pair chant in a kind of 'wish you were here' postcard, updating Pinder about the tour ('we're on the road like we knew we should [be]!' - Pinder especially hated the idea of touring after establishing a 'family' life in America post-band split) and enjoying the 'love' from Moody audiences glad to see the band back together again (although, less nobly, this is written as the line 'there's no escaping from the love we have seen'). The meaning of the Gemini Dream? Is this a reference to an update of the twin Blue Jaysproject? ('Voyager' starts a run of records where Ray and Graeme seem silenced compared to John and Justin; before you ask, no Justin's a libra and John a Leo and none of the band are Geminis in an astrological sense). Or is a 'Gemini Dream' a dream that works for two people in more of a relationship sense? ('Make it work out for each other tonight'). Whatever the meaning, 'Gemini Dream' is one of the sloppiest recordings the Moodies ever made - instruments come and go at random, the 'shouting' vocals from Justin and John add energy but not much musicality and lyrically this song is a postcard, not the usual poem. For all that, though, you can see why 'Gemini Dream' was such a success: it has a great beat, which Graeme nails by playing as simply as he can and the song does sound better the louder you play it. Certainly compared to everything else around in 1981 'Gemini Dream' shames every band half the Moodies' age trying to sound as modern - however it doesn't sound very 'Moodies-ish' and sticks out like a sore thumb in concerts, generally sandwiched between warmer, more lyrical songs like 'Tuesday Afternoon'.
'In My World' is 'proper' Moodies at last - a gorgeous Justin Hayward ballad that's easily the highlight of the album. A late third piece in the trio of recent Hayward love songs (see 'I had To Fall In Love With You' and 'Driftwood' on 'Octave'), 'World' has the same hazy, foggy dreamlike quality where the world looks so very different when you're in love. The lyrics are nothing special but they do at least sound heartfelt and are impressive in their simplicity, while a sudden crashing middle eight that comes out of nowhere ('And I'm only just beginning to see what you have done...') is especially strong, hinting that the narrator and his loved ones have been 'friends; for years before finally getting closer. It's the melody, though, that makes this song special: Hayward comes second only to Paul McCartney for his ability to write tunes that sound 'complete' and so 'obvious' and memorable that they sound as if they've been around for decades. The clever way the song manoeuvres it's way back to the start every verse so that the song builds momentum bit by bit is particularly clever and should be studied by wannabe songwriters in classrooms in years to come. The warmth of the arrangement - lots of guitars, a bit of flute and piano and not many synths - also makes 'In My World' stand out more than normal on an album full of loud, aggresive, 'modern' sounds and Justin's twin electric guitar parts are among the best he ever recorded, criss-crossing each other in one long conversation of love before occasionally running in tandem. The Moodies also makes the most of their stunning harmony vocals - sadly for the only time on this album in a traditional sense (we'll ignore the paranoid '22,000 Days' for now!) and they sound as great as ever despite being electronically treated (using the same one note 'aah' trick 10cc pioneered on 'I'm Not In Love' in 1975), Ray wrapping round the bottom and John around the top of Justin's vocal (amazingly you don't miss Mike Pinder on the first 'harmonised' Moodies song we know for definite doesn't feature him, although chances are he's 'missing' on a few of 'Octave's songs too). Unfortunately, though, you can have too much of a good thing and at 7:20 this song is another one that's far too long (the band would have done better to have let this song end at its natural point at 4:45 and kept the 'reprise' for a 12" mix, even if does offer the listener the chance to hear more guitar and backing vocals). Still, 'In My World' is a stunning song and it's almost worth buying the album for this song alone.
'Meanwhile' kicks off side two with a jazzier-than-usual Hayward song, a close souding of his 'Top Rank Suite' from 'Octave'. Another song nicely free from the digital clutter of much of the LP, the simpler backing suits this song about human frailties and the way relationships are never stable but turn on the slightest thing. There are lots of Moody-familiar lyrics here, lines about rivers 'running down to the sea', of wanting to be a 'hero' but finding out that you're a 'loser' instead and the theme of wondering what a long lost love is up to Yes, 'Meanwhile' is like a first draft of 'I Know You're Out There Somewhere', albeit not quite as memorable or distinctive. Like much of the album, you get the feeling of 'so what?' about a lot of this lyric - there's no real feel for what the story is and only the sudden cut to 'Meanwhile and far away...' where the sad and guilty narrator imagines his soulmate having the time of her life at the same time as he mopes about losing her stays in the mind. Musically this is a bouncy little song, something that doesn't quite go with the sentiments and while the opening of the song is lovely (strummed acoustic guitars and the twinkling high-end of a synthesiser falling like raindrops), things turn a bit ordinary from there on in. Meanwhile, 'Meanwhile' is better than a lot of the songs on the album and it's nice to hear Justin singing without any electronic trickery at all. Interestingly, too, it's this song that sounds most like the template for the Moodies' sound to come, despite featuring less electronics than most tracks on the album.
'22,000 Days' is Graeme Edge's song for the album and is more like a Pink Floyd song than a Moodies one. The curious title refers to how many days we humans get on average to spend on Earth ('it's not a lot, it's all you've got') and although the average has nudged up a fraction to 23,000 odd days in the 21st century you still get the sense that achieving all you want to in that short time is hopeless. Like much of 'The Wall', this song features a relentless march of synthesisers pushing forward oblivious to human emotions that get trampled underfoot. Possibly inspired by Graeme's 40th birthday during the early album sessions, this discussion of how 'the only foe is time' features the most Moodies-like lyric of the album, disgruntled at petty wars and differences and longing for peace. The only song on the album to feature Justin, John and Ray singing in tandem throughout the recording, it ought to be the most Moodies-thing here. The musical setting, however, is the most extreme experiment on the album, turning the usual warm and sympathetic Moodies into a cackling comic opera of mocking voices laughing at out lack of progress while technology marches indifferently on (I'll bet my promo copy of 'Nights In White Satin' that Graeme heard 'The Trial' from 'The Wall' before writing this song - the same even have the same walking rhythm and Gilbert and Sullivan patter). Fans are split over this song - I'm split too, loving the difference of this song and the fact that, ironically, it's here on such an impersonal, tongue-in-cheek recording that the Moodies sound most like a band (Justin's guitar, Ray's flute and harmonica, John's bubbling bass, Graeme's restrictive drums and Patrick's other-wordly synthesiser beeps never go this well together again) and given how far out their comfort zone they are the Moodies do a great job arranging this song. However, '22,000 Days' is so unforgiving - and again so Pink Floyd-like - in their dismissal of humanity that it's more than a bit uncomfortable listening to this song, without even a middle eight of hope to hang on to. While I admire the song greatly, I'm rather glad there isn't a whole album of this - one 'Wall' is enough for anybody!
'Nervous', meanwhile, is a song that sticks so rigidly inside it's comfort zone that you wonder why the band bothered. A John Lodge song about, well, feeling nervous it's clear to everyone but the narrator that he's actually in love. A sweet melody not far removed from Justin's lovely 'Who Are You Now?' from the 'Blue Jays' album sadly soon gives way to a rather middling sort of song with a curious chorus that doesn't really fit ('Bring it on home, your love') and an orchestra so lush and obvious Mantovani would have had sleepless nights about letting it through onto one of his records. Not a patch on Lodge's other songs on similar themes (To Our Children's Children's Children's 'Eyes Of A Child' and 'Octave's 'Survival'), 'Nervous' tries a little too hard to pull at our heartstrings and yet lurches from one section of the song to another uncertainly. To be fair Lodge nearly rescues the song with a great vocal, which does a better job at conveying confusion and romance than his lyrics do, and it's the rest of the band that let hi down here, with the full-on blast of Moraz's synths again sounding spectacularly wrong for such a simple, vulnerable little song. However even if the band had recorded this song as a quiet, humble, understated number (a la 'Who Are You Now?') the song would still have sounded uninspired and too similar to other songs on similar lines. The godawful 'Isn't Life Stra-a-a-a-ange?' has a lot to answer for in making Lodge think he can get away with simplistic fair like this.
'Painted Smile' is the start of a Ray Thomas trilogy. Badly underused so far across this album, sadly Ray's talents will be under-used on Moodies albums from here-on in. Sadly his last chance to shine shows why: it's not that his songs are bad, more that we've heard better before and with the Moodies down to two reliable songwriters and a few cameos Ray's eccentric tongue-in-cheek songs sound more out of place here than they used to (this album starts a 'tradition' of keeping Ray's songs together at the end of an LP). A 'circus' song about a narrator whose 'bleeding' inside but still paints on a smile and goes out and performs every night, it offers a good chance for the Moodies to show off their arranging prowess with the best soundscape of a circus since The Beatles' 'Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite', but it's not a patch on the many songs The Hollies' recorded on this theme (see 'Clown' from the album 'For Certain Because...', 'Mr Heartbreaker' from 'Out On The Road' and 'Harlequin' from '5317704'). The trouble is Ray is having so much fun with his vocal, giggling and mimicking whatever's going on in the lyrics ('somersaults reeling' sung up-and-down) that we don't know whether to trust what he's telling us about being hurt 'deep inside'. The backing doesn't help either - great as it is (the sudden run of drums and an audience gasping near the end is particularly clever, making the listener wonder what spectacular feat they've just missed) it's too busy making us laugh to make us cry. In the 1960s the band might have got away with it but here - with a typically heavy 1980s style production on a song that couldn't be less 1980s in terms of style and content (circuses died out in the 1980s for a reason - by contrast they were quite 'in' during the 1960s) it all sounds a bit ridiculous (and not in a good way). All together now: 'Huhhhhh!'
'Reflective Smile' is the first spoken word passage on a Moodies album since 1971 and the last 'spoken word' passage on a Moodies album until 1999 and already it sounds like a spoof of old classics (it's also the only one written by Ray alone rather than Graeme or the whole group). The choice of DJ David Symonds to read out the song over a carnival-esque backing is also a strange one - yes Symonds has a great voice and was a big champion of the Moodies, but Graeme does these sort of things so much better (their two voices aren't that dissimilar anyway). This 'song' is curiously unsympathetic too, mocking and cruel ('Your painted smile hides you still while you search within...') in a way that even the screams of 'Departure' and whatever the hell is supposed to be going on during 'The Beginning' never quite managed. By the way, listen out for Ray's delightfully mocking 'well, that's enough of all that!...' at the bottom of the mix during the start of the next song! (other fans have heard this as 'I'll have a scotch and coke please, mother!' - perhaps it's just my ears?!) It sounds to me as if the band simply needed a way of linking 'Painted Smile' into...
'Veteran Cosmic Rocker' rounds off the album, an affectionate parody of all old rock stars still out on stage (a rock and roll circus, then!) and the first really retro song in their canon (you wonder whether this song was Ray's typically subversive response to the other Moodies' decision to write a 'contemporary' sounding album!) Ray's song starts off well, with references to the days of old (nobody was spiking drinks in the 1980s when drug taking was much more open - this must be a 1960s reference) and a definite 'We're Just Singers In A Rock 'n' Roll Band' vibe in the lines about the megastar being 'the apple of the eye' of an adoring 'crowd...of fools'. The song was surely inspired by the Moodies' 1979 tour - the most extensive they'd done in ten years now that Pinder - the Moody most reluctant to travel - was no longer in the band and the fact that people still came in their thousands to see a band many had considered 'old hat' just a year earlier (it doesn't matter how many people buy your records, it's quite another actually seeing them pay money to travel and see you and give you standing ovations - all this has clearly gone to Ray's head). The title isn't actually the band's - it was used in a headline by a music journalist who went to one of their shows; strangely, despite the mocking title, it was quite an affectionate review. An odd song, 'Veteran Cosmic Rocker' tries hard to please and be hysterically funny - which it is right up to the line 'He's afraid he's going to die', which isn't funny at all, especially the wrenched scream Thomas gives the line at the grand finale. Thomas sadly retired from the Moody Blues in 2002 due to 'ill health' although the band have never disclosed quite what and when he caught it; does the illness date back this far? (Ray certainly gets less and less to do on stage past the 1979 tour, to the point where when I saw the band in 1998 he only got a single song to perform - and no, it wasn't this one). The mystery is further confused by what Ray might or might not be saying to us in the wonderfully retro 'backwards message' at the end (another hint that the Moodies had been listening to 'The Wall'): is the line 'What happens anyway, you know?' or 'That's about it for me anyway, you know'. Either way it's a shame that Ray gets overlooked on later Moodies albums- while far from the band's best writer (especially on this album) his off-kilter world view and humour meant he came up with some cracking songs the rest of the band could never hope to match. 'Cosmic Rocker' isn't one of his best, but it does invoke the 1960s quite well in its music and lyrics and tha band turn in another clever arrangement (although given the circumstances a more 1960s tone throughout might have made it better still). The best section of the song, though, doesn't involve the lyrics at all but comes in the brilliantly eccentric solo which more successfully evokes the days of old with a flute solo (Ray's first since 1971, discounting his solo work) and an exotic 'Eastern' section that does a good job at conjuring up Arabs and snakecharmers ('East' usually means 'India' on 1960s and 1970s albums - was this a misunderstanding that seemed to fit all the same? Or were sitar players too expensive to hire in 1981?)
Overall, then, 'Long Distance Voyager' is an album that goes a long way to giving us the extra mile with some clever arrangements and touches throughout, even though there's actually less here of substance than normal to keep you interested to journey's end. In many ways 'Voyager' is the album the band had to make, to silence critics who thought there hadn't been change enough on 'Octave' and that the Moodies were stuck in the past. For fans like me, though, I'd take the past any day when the alternative is to be trapped in a sound from the 1980s. There's no getting away from the fact that 'Voyager' was such a strong seller - the Moodies' best, in fact, worldwide (although I'm surprised it didn't do better in Britain, where most of the band's followers were until the reunion LPs). It's this album that should have been titled 'The Present' - 'Voyager's biggest strength and it's biggest weakness is that it so successfully conjures up it's era. The album clearly tapped into something of the mood of 1981 - it's bravado confidence, synthesisers and detachment from emotions - but like many an album that summed up it's time so well (The Beatle's 1967's 'Sgt Peppers', The Human League's 1981's 'Dare' and Adele's 2010's '21'), it also sounds rather trapped in time, so much a part of history that it doesn't have the same 'future' as, say, 'To Our Children's Children's Children' or even 'The Present' possesses . 'Voyager' is not without merit - 'The Voice' and especially 'In My World' are Moody triumphs and '22,000 Days' is a strong experiment in tackling an all new sound. Too much of the rest of this record sounds ordinary though, not up to even the average song level of 'Octave' never mind the classic seven LPs and overloading everything with synthesisers isn't helping. From here-on in every Moodies LP lacks the consistent greatness that used to be their trademark, but talent that strong doesn't disappear overnight and like the later albums to come 'Voyager' still has evidence of why the Moodies' voyage is such a long and special one for so many, with a passionate fanbase like no other.