Monday, 27 October 2014
The Moody Blues "The Other Side Of Life" (1986)
Your Wildest Dreams/Talkin' Talkin'/Rock 'n' Roll Over You/I Just Don't Care/Running Out Of Love//The Other Side Of Life/The Spirit/Slings and Arrows/It May Be A Fire
There are certain album in my collection where I think 'how did it come to this?' Not so very long ago we were saying that The Moody Blues summed up the late 1960s perhaps more than any other band: legions of instruments, lengthy track times, memorable melodies, mystical lyrics and painted album covers that were works of art (well, by and large). Above all The Moody Blues were rock's biggest democracy: five writers, five singers, five very different visions that were still much bigger than the sum of its parts. By 1986 though The Moody Blues have changed with the times and released perhaps the single most 1980s album in my collection: synthesisers are being used for everything now not just washes of colour, the melodies are shallow, the lyrics are silly and the cover photograph clearly done digitally (the band never did get the hang of the 1980s' love of short running times however!) Above all they've stopped being a democracy: this is the Justin and John show, but Hayward and Lodge are lost in an alien landscape of Patrick Moraz synthesisers; Graeme Edge, meanwhile, gets just one lone cameo - and Ray Thomas appears to do nothing except turn up for the back cover photo shoot. The result is an album that the Moody Blues probably had to make (it's predecessor, the much more Moodies-ish 'The Present', was the band's poorest selling reunion LP) but we long terms have to ask - did they have to update their sound so completely and with so much relish?
The funny thing is, a little like 'Long Distance Voyager' but more so, there's a very vocal legion of Moody fans who love this album and think it the best thing the band ever made. Chances are they were the right age when this album came out and the 1980s backing, so off-putting to those born before and after, is what they thought of as 'normal' growing up - it's those earlier songs about love and peace that seemed so alien and strange at first (before 'new' fans inevitably fell in love with those earlier songs too). We're 'both' right of course: 'The Other Side Of Life' is for its times as good if not better than anything else around in the day. Generally when we review mid-80s albums on this site they're being recorded by bands who should never have gone near such effects with a bargepole (or at least casio keyboard) and who sound hopelessly painfully wrong trying to suddenly sound both 20 years younger and as if they know what they're doing. 'The Other Side Of Life' isn't like that: by AAA standards The Moody Blues really click with what the 1980s sensibility is (thanks in no small part to the younger Moraz' influence - you sense he's been waiting for this moment to prove himself ever since he joined the band) to the point where if this had been a new band without so much history or baggage (the band your parents probably owned!) would have been a bigger seller yet. The 'problem' sitting here in the 21st century is that the Moodies have done too good a job of overthrowing their past sound and done whatever it takes to remain a valid, successful pop act (they were too - both the album and lead single 'Your Wildest Dreams' peaked at #9 in America, which is pretty good going for an AAA band in that era - only Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones could, occasionally, compete). They've made an album that sounds to ears like everything else that was off-putting from an era that now sounds dated and strange - far more so, interestingly, than the very 1960s albums The Moodies were making at the beginning. This will become a problem relatively quickly too, with this sound a bit 'old' by 1991's 'Keys Of The Kingdom' and in need of a radical rethink by 1999's 'Strange Times' and leaving the Moodies further behind the pack than ever. In 1986, though, it should be remembered that 'The Other Side Of Life' was a success: it showed what the band could do, that they could compete with anything youngsters were making (if not their own great past) and they arguably lengthened their career by another decade or so.
Being a 1980s album, though, there's less for us to really talk about. I could happily write a book on the 'searching' metaphor of 'In Search Of The Lost Chord' or how the 'rocket' of man's expectations on the moon-landing period 'To Our Children's Children's Children' goes up on side one and comes down again on side two (that is a threat by the way!) Even as late as 'Long Distance Voyager' there was a nice half-theme of the past and history and 'The Present' has an album cover amongst the best and most filled with symbolism in my collection (Catalunia The Third sends her best Habridat greetings by the way!) 'The Other Side Of Life' is just love songs at different speeds, played on different synthesiser settings and, occasionally, at different tempos. In a way that's a tragedy: Moody Blues records used to cut deeper than most others, with lyrics you could ponder on for hours and a cover that makes you think. 'The Other Side Of Life' is - like many a 1980s product - disposable, born to be glances at once, enjoyed and then put back on the shelf. It's always fascinated me that the generation (my generation in case you feel I'm being too rude) of the video, the first to realise that you could go back and watch things later, chose to make everything surface watchable, one-layered colourful and bright, instead of packed with knowledge that could be gained on several repeats (it's a slightly different thing with music but compact discs are also easier to do this with than vinyl records). My inner 1960s flower child is rather horrified - my real 1980s soul just wants to dance (don't worry, I've distracted it with some deely-boppers and a space-hopper). Whose to say whose right and whose wrong? Well, this is largely a 1960s site so, clearly, the former view is right - but that said I hear that an awful lot of you will like this album and my toes agree with you even when my soul does not (whose going to save it now that the Moody Blues are busy doing something else?)
We'll start off with what this album could have been. I have it on good authority (the Moody Blues' own fanclub newsletters, no less - one of only two AAA fanclubs I ever joined) that this album started off life as a concept album about the return of Halley's comet. In case you missed the news (it was - gulp - 30 years ago) this is a comet with an intriguing astronomical orbit which means it returns to the Earth's orbit approximately every 75 years. The comet duly returned in 1986, right on cue, and created a flurry of excited media interest because the comet generally appeared at times of great social struggle: it's (probably) that funny twinkling light with a tail seen in the Bayoux Tapestry which appeared over the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (assuming, of course, that it wasn't a tourist ET taking some holiday snaps), the glow reported in 1456 when the Ottoman Empire's army invaded Hungary, in 1835 after Queen Victoria took to the throne and in 1910 not long after her death and when the First World War looked about to bite. Nothing happened in 1986, of course (well obviously something happened or that would be a news story in itself, but as the 'biggest' and most talked about story of the year in Britain was obscure minor Royal Prince Andrew marrying Sarah Ferguson that kind of gives away how uneventful the year was) - but people were expecting it to. The Cold War was still raging, The Falklands had only been four years before, a whole new threat might have emerged: the start of the year and even up to April when this record came out was an unsettled time with people on their toes. What a Moody Blues album tyat could have been: how different things were compared to how they used to be, yet how this comet running through key passages of human history proved the human race never really changes. There could have been songs about the past, the present and the future (what would the next pass - still due around 2060 by the way, if Alan's Album Archives hasn't worn your eyes out by then - bring? Would we even recognise ourselves?) There could have been a classic over featuring a comet shedding its outer tail - and spelling out the band name and title in the process. Instead the band went 'nahh, can't be bothered', wrote some poppy songs and took some photographs they digitally imposed onto a school science-room for the cover (why? Is this the world's first test-tube album created artificially in a laboratory - that's what the synthesisers make it feel like sometimes - but there's no mention of anything to do with science or chemistry in the lyrics! Why too is there a trapdoor in the floor with the Earth below - are we not on the other side of this life but in a good old alien spaceship? If so then why do the aliens have what's clearly a 1980s fax machine that's madly printing off random pictures of the Moody Blues?!)
Instead we get another half-theme, one that's sketched out but not exactly given in detail. The 'other' crops up quite a few times across this album, parallel universes of what might have been opening up before our ears. 'Your Wildest Dreams' may be cute and cuddly, but at it's heart is a real killer message: what would have happened if the narrator had taken a different path? Would he still be with his soulmate? Was she really his soulmate or would she turn out to be a let down like his current life? And is it really too late to find out?! 'Running Out Of Love' continues the theme: there's something bigger blocking this long-distance relationship than a 'telephone line' - what would the 'other' relationship (not separated by distance) be like? How great would life be if the pair of lovers could be at their happiest all the time without 'real' life getting in the way? 'The Spirit' is Graeme, typically, picking up on the 'sense' of an album and using the same ideas mystically: 'Spirit' should really have been titled 'Fate' - it's narrated by the figure at the world's centre, who can see all of time at once and knows the beginnings, middles and endings of stories we puny humans feel around for - he isn't restricted by doubts and second chances, he knows how every version of our actions would have turned out. 'Slings and Arrows' quickly goes elsewhere, being a variant on the 'sticks and stones' routine, but even that song states: 'There's no chance for a second chance' - there never will be one correct answer to all this because life and people change all the time; just because someone was perfect for you years ago doesn't mean they will be today or tomorrow (unless you both grow in the same direction of course - but that's another song). 'It May Be A Fire' goes further, claiming that 'love' isn't a constant - it ebbs and flows and never stays still, but a partnership is only over if the fire burns out completely. The obvious song about all this, of course, is 'The Other Side Of Life' - a Hayward song quite unlike anything else he's written. The music video tries to make this mysterious 'other' into a 'real' place, full of seedy clubs pitbull terriers and extras in bad make up pretending to be bikers, but the lyrics clearly mean 'other' in a metaphorical sense: the idea that there's 'another' you to draw on that knows things the 'real' you doesn't know. Justin's 'other' is populated by music, sweetly - songs he hasn't written yet and may go on to write depending on what his 'soul connects' to, adding for good measure that you have to 'lose your way' to 'find yourselves again'.
Of course if the Moodies had released something like that comet album in 1986 or even made this half-concept a more obvious one they'd probably have sold less copies than they did for 'The Present'. The one thing that comes over loud and clear on 'The Other Side Of Life' is how aggressive the album is - how 'other' it is. Practically all the songs compete for our attention with a clatter of noises (the only one that doesn't, 'I Just Don't Care', is one of the band's more forgettable songs). Practically all the songs are uptempo rock songs (usually on Moodies albums the ballads win hands down). And throughout the main sounds that hit you aren't Ray Thomas' glorious flute or even Justin's piercing guitar but Moraz' keyboards and drum programming. There's nothing 'inward' about this album, even though they are statistically more 'love' songs here than normal - while plenty of songs complain about being 'lost in a lost world', the narrators of these songs aren't the passive victims of old, the doubting regretful singers of 'Question' and 'You Can Never Go Home', but people controlling their own destinies. Justin pleads with us to enter 'The Other Side Of Life', John threatens that 'like a rock I'm gonna roll over you', the pair of them rain down 'slings and arrows' over their loved one and even the most 1960s moment here - 'The Spirit' - is narrated by a rather angry and hands-on sounding Father Time. Perhaps the biggest change for this album from the Moodies records before it is that no one worries about anybody - there's no sad reflections on lost loves, no wondering what damage crooked politicians will do to the world, no mystical attempt to connect with other time-zones, no songs wondering what world their new-born children will grow up into and above all, no guilt. Ever since the Moodies got back together again in 1978 there's been a sense of 'time' running across their lyrics - of days getting shorter, of chances untaken and promises unfulfilled. But here - nothing. Only 'Your Wildest Dreams' even thinks about anyone else's feelings and life-story and then the lyrics make it clear that 'I wonder if you think about me' rather than 'me thinking about you'. Was this a deliberate ploy to make the band sound more commercial? (It was the first record made for 'Polydor' directly, rather than through the band's long-serving 'Threshold' label). Were these songs written after hearing how tough and unrelenting Moraz' wall of synthesisers sounded? Was it the idea of big name producer Tony Visconti? (And if so did he have any idea of the band's past history or did he really want the band to sound like everyone else of the day always did?) Or was this very much a one-off, an attempt to show 'another' side to the Moodies - an experiment that sold so well it ended up becoming the 'template' for at least the next three albums to come? (We're not sure yet whether 2003's Christmas record 'December' - still the last Moodies album at the time of writing - is a one-off itself or a return to a much quieter sound).
In short, there's no room for doubting Thomases in this band - which is a shame because Ray's humour and self-deprecating lyrics would have made a nice counter-balance to the band getting poe-faced like normal, the way they had on 'Veteran Cosmic Rocker'. Ray hadn't exactly been a major presence since the reunion days and the band had on the last two records taken the worrying decision to stick his songs together at the end of an album where they seemed like an extra mini-LP added afterwards by a very different band. That said, Thomas was a key figure in a band where he and Graeme were the only founding members left - he'd still got three songs and three vocals (not the same ones) to his credit on 'The Present', so his 'fall from grace' on this album (where he gets exactly nothing) is spectacular. He doesn't even join in with the backing vocals that I can hear (although he is credited for both that and for flute-playing which I can't hear either) except for a possible brief bit on the middle eight of 'Talkin' Talkin'. Did he not approve of the band's change in direction? Or had he put all his eggs in one basket by writing them around the 'comet' idea? (If so, was he sulking through the making of this album and the next one, where he's missing too). Was he ill? (Stories have been doing the rounds ever since he retired, but as far as I can make out only started much later than this and was none, some or all from gout/arthritis/diabetes). Or was he simply suffering writer's block? Whatever the cause, his presence is sorely missed. Graeme usually fills in the gap when one of the other four is 'off colour' and a song down on an album, but his lone song (he won't get any on next album 'Sur La Mer' either) 'The Spirit' is a real oddity. Graeme write the single most traditionally set of Moody lyrics here, but they're set to Moraz' one credit on this album (a bit harsh, I think, given how much input he had into all nine backing tracks) and as a result the most contemporary sounding track here. Patrick's name in the writing credits is interesting in itself (it's the only credit he'll ever get while a Moody) - the fact that this is a one-off collaboration between keyboardist and drummer (the longest and shortest serving members) even more so: were they told to work together to keep the album more 'consistent' sounding? Did Patrick need help with the words or Graeme with the music (if so then why not pick Ray?) Or were they just really good friends who never got round to writing with each other again? (Note too the fact that the band are pictures separately in most of the packaging for the first time since 'A Question Of Balance').
Whatever their cause, it's the single biggest reason 'The Other Side Of Life' is the weakest Moodies album up to this point (sadly worse is still to come). Until now five major creative powers mean that bad tracks tend to get thrown out a lot earlier and consistency has become something of a Moody Blues trademark down the years: even when the band aren't writing classics all the time they're generally writing passable efforts. The problem with this album, though, is the same for most Moody solo works (except the 'Blue Jays' and Justin's excellent 'Songwriter' anyway): these writers can come up with two great brilliant songs easily; three is harder; four (even in collaboration with one another) is pushing it. On this album Justin and John have to come up with eight songs between them (or were others submitted but not thought up to standard?) and they're a typically mixed bunch. The two singles, both by Justin, are easily the best things here: 'Your Wildest Dreams' is frothy fun about the favourite theme of wondering what happened to a past love - it's not up to the earlier 'Who Are You Now?' (Blue Jays 1976) or the up-coming 'I Know You're Out There Somewhere' ('Sur la Mer' 1988) but sports a jolly tune. 'The Other Side Of Life' isn't quite as pioneering as it likes to think it is (the Moodies' older selves would have come up with an amazing middle instrumental representing just what that 'other' meant) but it's a step in the right direction - nicely spooky and with Moraz' synthesisers adding real emotional weight rather than just atmosphere. The joint work 'Talkin' Talkin' has a great riff too, even if it runs out of ideas before the end of the first chorus, never mind the four minute mark. 'The Spirit' is nicely different too, Graeme's words and Patrick's music offering up a sound that's ear-catchingly different in the morass of the album. That's about it though: everything else is either boring ('I Just Don't Care'), offensive ('Like A Rock I'm Gonna Roll Over You! *Crash*) or both ('It May Be A Fire'). The days when the Moodies put together an album you could enjoy all the way through - something they ever so nearly achieved as late as 'The Present' with only 'Sitting At The Wheel' disappointing - seem far away suddenly. Frustratingly, it will be like this till the end (unless the band surprise me, of course, they're good at that).
'Your Wildest Dreams' is a safe pair of hands to start the album, a catchy song that's close enough to the 'old' Moodies sound to make up for the rather odd and very 1980s start (which sounds like a cross between a sci-fi film and a commercial for mashed potato). Thereafter its usual Moodies fare: Hayward's narrator pines nostalgically over an old lover and wonders what happened to them. While not as sweet as the excellent 'Who Are You Now?' there are some good lines - the repeated 'once upon a time' hints at the fairytale sense of the song (she couldn't really have been that perfect - his memory has fooled him) and there's a sense that what the narrator is really yearning is his youth; a time when the possibilities were still endless and 'the world was new'. The hint in both the second verse and the excellent music video is that the 'music' got in the way, a 'sound I had to follow' - a personal touch that suggests this song is more than just autobiography. Hayward's lines about wondering whether she thinks about him as he thinks of her is touching, although there's no resolution in the song (we won't get that for another couple of years yet and sequel 'I Know You're Out There Somewhere'). While the synthesisers are still a little OTT - especially the noisy synth bass which is a world apart from the more sensitive lines usually played by John Lodge - the 1980s backing works better here than most of the album, coming in waves and washes of colour that suit this song about a 'dream'. The song was strong enough to make #9 in Billboard -the highest the Moodies had got since the 1972 re-issue of 'Nights In White Satin'; frothier and more one-dimensional than classic singles like 'Driftwood' and 'The Voice' this song isn't quite as 'special' somehow and the fact that so many future Moodies recordings use this one as a template is a shame, but here and now it is a good song well played.
'Talkin' Talkin' is a Hayward-Lodge collaboration that sounds on the surface like a fun song: there's a neat circling 'oh-wah-a-woah' keyboard riff that's really quite catchy and the busy synth chugs drive the song on so face you barely have time to hear what the words are. Justin fits in a rare guitar solo, too, which is the highlight of the recording full of his customary power and clarity. The vocals aren't bad either compared to most of the rest of the album (though Ray is badly missed). However when you come to actually sit down and study those lyrics: well, let's just say we've come a long way from 'Nights In White Satin'. 'It doesn't really matter' run most of the verses, because 'I'm only talking' as we're told in the choruses. OK fair enough - talking about what? Nothing apparently - 'we're only talking' and it doesn't even matter if the couple are 'making sense'. On the positive side you could stake a claim that this song is about the importance of communicating over huffy silences even when both sides disagree or talk gibberish - but the song doesn't exactly say that either; the pair seem to be talking over each other for the hell of it, which sounds less healthy to me than if they'd shut up and listen to each other for a change. Suddenly that relentless churning bass riff and repetitive keyboard sighing takes on a whole new meaning, carrying on and on not because they have something to say but because no one told them to stop. A very odd song.
John's 'Rock and Roll Over You' is, however, even odder. In this song he tells us that he's 'not going to lose his nerve, fall apart, turn the tide or start from the top'. Instead he's just going to keep on being stubborn because 'like a rock I'm gonna roll over you'. And that's it for virtually five minutes. To be fair, these lyrics are clearly not written to be poetry pondered on across the ages (as so many past Moody songs were) and sound written to fill out a punchy riff and a new landscape for Patrick Moraz to used every goody in his moody toybox and aren't meant to be taken seriously; but still - 'Like a Rock I'm Gonna Roll Over You?' At least Lodge's previous 'Sitting At The Wheel' made logical sense - it didn't say anything particularly interesting, mind you, but it did make sense; I'd have been unhappy if the likes of Michael Jackson or The Spice Girls had come up with this - by Moody Blues standards its the equivalent of going from painting the Sistine Chapel to doing a bit of graffitti! Once again, though, Moraz comes to the rescue of an under-performing song that he again plays pretty much single-handed and for anyone not allergic to 1980s synths it's rather good; there's a loud crash every few bars to keep us all awake, a sighing blaring half-speed part that's much like Mike Pinder would have played on a mellotron in the olden days, a chirping higher keyboard riff that nowadays would be mistaken for a ring tone, another busy jazz synth bass and a curious digital choir that sound as if they're trapped inside a microwave. That's an awful lot to pack into a song and Moraz deserves credit for lining that many contrapuntal sounds at once without the whole effect being truly awful and the main riffs at the heart of this song are downright funky and catchy. The end result is a beautifully packaged parcel with a beautiful ribbon tied round the outside, with nothing there when you open the box. The sudden stop-start ending (as if the whole tape recorder has just broken down) is annoying too - this is a song about overcoming every single obstacle no matter how hard, so why make it sound as if the narrator is having second thoughts and/or a stutter?
By now you're probably pleading for some of that old Moodies sound - I know I am. But be careful what you wish for: Hayward's latest ballad 'I Just Don't Care' is his latest simplistic love song and whether because of the setting (the band seem to have forgotten how to do anything quiet and insist on filling the track with noise) or the poor lyrics, this song sounds artificial and dishonest by his high standards. Many of Justin's recent greatest songs have been simple and affecting: 'Had To Fall In Love With You' 'In My World' 'Running Water' are all amongst the best songs from 'Octave' 'Long Distance Voyager' and 'The Present' respectively and sound like if not true heart-wrenching autobiography then diary entires, glimpses of the soul. This track, however, sounds smug and a bit pompous, lines simply written to fit a melody that wasn't that good to start off with. 'I just don't care, I love you' isn't the greatest chorus line ever and while some of the verses are better ('The indestructible has broken down, the undeniable is turned around'), others aren't ('Friends will tell you that I've lost my cool, a love-sick schoolboy turning up for school'). There are two saving graces to this song though: the first is an aching middle eight that reverts to the minor key and adds some uncertainty to the song, fitting for lines where the narrator is trying to 'lift a veil from my eyes somehow' - at last this record has believable tension that doesn't come directly from the synthesisers. The second is another guitar solo, sadly over far too soon, which adds a warm beating heart to a song that otherwise sounds cold and distant. The end result, though, is that rare beast - the only Justin Hayward ballad from the guitarist's entire discography that I'm not very keen on.
'Running Out Of Love' is more gormless fun with synthesisers from John and Justin. There's a strong melody line to this one which really digs into the memory banks and I could have seen this becoming a second hit single (it's arguably a more sensibly commercial choice than 'The Other Side Of Life'). The two Blue Jays sing the lead together in a belated sense of unity and sound rather good (why isn't the whole album sung this way?) and the parts where Moraz is using his synthesiser as a storm rather than just as a sound effects machine are genuinely compelling. The problem, once again, comes from the words: the opening verse is ok ('I don't know if it's me, I don't know if its you, I don't know if it's both of us not knowing what to do!'), but it's not good enough to be stretched out four times with slightly different wording for the whole song! What's a real shame is that this composition sounds like potentially the most interesting one on the album, possibly the Moodies addressing their recent lack of sales and critical success and wondering where they stand with an industry that 'one day wants to put us on hold, one day wants to put us on a pedestal on high'. The idea of a telephone as a lifeline, the only link to the outside world, should have been prime Moodies material leading to a fascinating discourse about the walls built up between human beings and our inability to truly understand each other 100%. Alas it turns into a song where the line 'Can't believe we're running out of love' is sung twelve times over (that's once every 18 seconds!)
Thankfully 'The Other Side Of Life' is better: Justin has clearly been thinking about where the band's sound is going and turns in a hard edgy rocker that sounds far removed from the lighter fluff on most of the album and yet like the rest of the record sounds like it's going somewhere bold and different (the title may have been taken from Justin thinking about his beginnings and the Freddy Neil song 'The Other Side Of This Life' as covered by bands like Jefferson Airplane. Fiercely 60s, psychedelic and about altered perception, the Moodies' song sounds like a digitalised re-write of the song, with perceptions less about drugs and related more as shifting social consciousness, with mankind a blob of masses inspired to turn a certain way by economic and social trends). The central melody of the verses is a good one, gnawing its way up to the sky only to fall down heavily at the end, as if crushed under the weight of its aspirations; the shouted chorus sounds good too if a little unfinished (it needs another line to 'balance' the more unusual second half against the shouted first). While Justin's lyrics never quite make good on their intentions to take us to a wilder part of town - most of the song is taken up with the journey not the destination - the lyrics we do have are among the best on the album: 'The atmosphere on the streets tonight is the driving beat of the world'. The idea that the future is shaped not by leaders or people in the spotlights but from the disgruntled masses is a great Moody-ish concept (perfect for Thatcher's middle years if you're British), with the idea that the 'gifts' of change are there for everyone. The choruses make this song more about love: the idea that a couple have got stuck in a rut and need to 'lose themselves' and 'go completely astray' to 'find' themselves again. Could it be that, like the last song, Justin is singing about the band here: they were 'running out of love' with the band sound and critics and fans were running out of love with them; by contrast going in the completely opposite direction to normal has helped them 'find ourselves again'. Either way, dressed up to the nines with perhaps Moraz' single best synthesiser accompaniment of his Moodies career and another great Justin solo, this is the one song on the album that gets 'sound' and concept about right and the clear highlight of the album. The one thing that prevents this song from being a true Moodies classic, though, is that after the two minute mark the song has nowhere to go but back to the beginning and repeats that one long verse and one chorus all over again - how much more thrilling would it have been to have actually 'made' the other side of life this time around?
'The Spirit' is a more interesting song than most too. Patrick wrote the music and Graeme the words, although in a sign of how dominant they're becoming John and Justin sing most of the lyrics themselves, with the just the one line 'for I am time' spoken by the drummer through a vocoder. Like many of Edge's lyrics this one wonders about whether mankind's efforts are part of some bigger plan or simply accidental. Unlike the gloomy '22,000 Days' (Edge's song from 'Long Distance Voyager'), this one feels very much the former: asking 'Do you know the way the spirit goes?' and imagining some great afterlife where time no longer exists and where we can be healed of all our human problems, that our problems are 'only a matter of slight, not of sound'. In typical Moodies fashion here is a place where 'love is all around' (the only lyrics that comes anyway close to traditional Moodies fare) and where the 'future is in the past' (with shades of 'Days Of Future Passed'). Even better than the lyrics, though, is the music, which intriguingly is built by Moraz around not his keyboards at first but Justin's snarling guitar riff. A clever see-sawing melody for the verse sounds like the restricted human condition of the verses (suggesting the lyrics came first - Graeme often wrote his songs as poems), hopping from one foot to another before finally achieving resurrection in the chorus spoken by 'Father Time' that feels both warmer and more hopeful. The central tune of both parts is clever and accompanied well by a synthesiser backing that's far more 'traditional', especially the 'digital strings' part in the instrumental - you can imagine this part being played by the 'old' band on guitar, for instance, whereas trying to replicate any of the other backing tracks from this album would merely sound like a lot of pinging and random notes. In short, 'The Spirit' is one of the three really good songs from this album worth owning and it's a real shame this partnership didn't write more together. Not with-standing Hayward's typically canny knack of commercial genius, this is the template on the album that sounds as if it has 'legs', uniting the best of the 'old style' band with the 'new' sounds they've just discovered.
'Slings and Arrows', meanwhile, just sounds silly. It seems odd to me that Justin and John's first instinct when trying to 're-boot' the band's sound was to go back to such relentlessly commercial sounds: as a (very) general rule the best 1980s songs everyone remembers are the ones that flirted with controversy rather than being 'mere' pop songs: 'Material Girl' 'Don't You Want Me Baby' most of 'Thriller' and anything by Culture Club - it was the 1990s that made silly pop fun again. 'Slings and Arrows' seems like a 1990s song - it has nothing to offer except a quirky novelty synthesiser riff, a cute chorus of 'slings and arrows' and a hopeful 'jolly idiot' verse melody that wouldn't have been out of place on a Herman's Hermits album. While John Lodge at last plays a 'real' bass rather than having Patrick play a digital one, an oddly Hawaiian guitar part from Hayward that makes the whole piece seem like a novelty. The backing, though, is pure 1980s, awash with more synthesisers than a Human League album. Take that away though and you basically have a short and chirpy 1960s pop song - something The Moody Blues used to do a lot of back when Denny Laine was in the band but have never ever done from the moment John and Justin (the two authors of this track) were hired. If the melody in the verses sounds familiar that's because it starts in exactly the same way as Justin's earlier song 'Meanwhile' ('from 'Long Distance Voyager') - were the band actively trying to go back to their recent past in order to secure their future? Lyrically this song is a mess: love is a bunch of arrows that can pierce any suit of armour and 'there's no easy way to say goodbye'. A fine song for Robin Hood maybe, but the Moody Blues generally write on deeper levels than this.
Many fans feel that John Lodge's closer 'It May Be A Fire' rather rescues the album. Lyric-wise it is indeed one of the superior songs here: while the metaphor of a 'fire' meaning 'passion' is an old and much-tested one, taken in the larger context of the album where couples that have been around a long time wonder whether to carry on or start afresh (and the hint that this is the same for the band if they wish to survive longer with their fans and stay fresh and relevant) it's a neat party trick. The Moodies acknowledge that the fire may have dimmed in both cases, but that this is natural over time - it's only when the fire goes out and won't be re-lit that you really need to move on. However what could have been a nice song is let down badly by the sheer treaclyness of the surroundings. Like many a John Lodge Ballad, a good lyric means that less time and care has been spent on the melody, which have a tendency to ramble around one-note when he's speaking from the heart. The tempo too is so slow that if this was a fire it would have burnt out by about the end of the second verse. The backing is also the single worst one on the album: there's lots of empty spaces in this song which the band seem convinced they have to fill with something and so we get the kitchen sink: Justin's uncharacteristically 'wrong' harsh guitar parts, clattering percussion (which sound like real drums at last!) and keyboard burblings that really don't fit and are all rather distracting. The result is a promising song ruined by the fear of needing to keep the listener's attention: The Moodies used to handle side-long concept suites with aplomb so this trend of trying to sound 'busy' is an alarming one and the album ends pretty much where it began: with a commercial song that in olden days might have shone but here sounds distinctly unappealing.
That's the trouble with 'The Other Side Of Life': a bit more thought in song construction and a bit less thought in dressing everything up in fancy colours and this could have been a real achievement, instead of a record that sounds almost embarrassed to have anything to do with past Moody Blues records. That's usually a stupid move - nothing puts 'old fans' off more than being reminded that the music they've been enjoying is considered 'dated' and 'new fans' generally only join in when something the band in question have been saying comes into fashion again - or they happen to hit on some great timeless idea that transcends barriers of age and taste. With 'The Other Side Of Life' that doesn't seem to have been the case though: depending where you lived this was either the biggest selling of the reunion albums or the second biggest (after 'Long Distance Voyager') suggesting that the band had managed to secure quite a few new fans whilst retaining the long distance voyagers of old. I'd like to think that rather than record company publicity or two really good music videos that was because The Moodies bucked the trend and made 'The Other Side Of Life' the perfect album for 1986: the synthesisers, prettiness and simple subject matters that were in every other big hit that year is here too, along with just enough depth and longing on the key album tracks to make this album 'sound' like a record worth buying. The sad fact, though, is that an album that so successfully conjures up an era rarely appeals to the generations that came afterwards: for many newer Moodies fans 'The Other Side Of Life' might as well have come from an alien world - thankfully for the band, for this site and for music of the future and the world in general, fans from the 21st century tend to feel they have more in common with the band's 60s philosophy and spirit than the mid-1980s trend for artificialness and shallowness. All that said, while 'Other Life' is far from classic Moody Blues, it did exactly what it needed to do - make the band relevant and powerful again - and got their record contract with Polydor off to a flying start. On its own small terms the record worked wonders and the band made a far more successful job of trying to update their sound than most 1960s and 1970s bands had done. The trouble comes when you come to see this album as part of the bigger Moody Blues picture: there's a lot less going on in here than perhaps any other Moodies record and back to back with the encouraging 'The Present' this record is ultimately a disappointment.