Monday, 16 March 2015
The Moody Blues "Sur La Mer" (1988)
The Moody Blues "Sur La Mer" (1988)
I Know You're Out There Somewhere/Want To Be With You/River Of Endless Love/No More Lies/Here Comes The Weekend//Vintage Wine/Breaking Point/Miracle/Love Is On The Run/Deep
"I remember the taste of vintage grape from 63 through to 68, but recently the music's started to vinegrate, all too easy to miss, all too usual to hate, I wished they'd go back to the things they believed in then, and it really was the same without the need to pretend, but every so often The Moodies still sound young and free and every bit as great as they always were - or at least they do to me, oh-h-h, oh-h-h, oh-h-h-h-h-h-h!'
Here we are two years on with The Moody Blues no longer enjoying 'The Other Side Of Life' but 'In The Water' (as the literal interpretation of the title would have it). The two albums really come as a pair and much the same points as last time apply: this is a noisy synth-driven poppy Moody Blues who'll most likely appal fans of their multi-layered haunting earlier works but might well shock some of your OMD and Madonna loving friends into how convincingly the Moodies sound like they belong to this era. There's no getting away from the fact that the band sold far better in this period than they'd ever done before so were clearly appealing to someone - although all too often as the album wears on us older fans get the sneaking suspicion that it isn't us anymore and for many fans this album is the last straw (or, to quote one of the album's lyrics, our breaking point). This time the band aren't dipping their toe in the waters of synth land (as on the rather pleasing 'The Present' album in 1983) or taking a first full bath (as per 'The Other Side') but have dived in head first, with only 'Vintage Wine' recalling anything now from the past sound that made them famous (and this track quoted from above - well sort of - good as it is, sounds woefully out of place as a consequence). The results, oddly, are rather better this time around, perhaps because of the fact that the band are no longer pretending to straddle the two eras: they're a modern act, ready to play by modern rules, whatever that takes - sometimes that results in selling out good and proper and yet more horrid filler fluff, but occasionally - just occasionally - The Moody Blues hit gold. The difference is that 'The Other Side Of Life' was the album the Moodies had to make, to keep them fresh and relevant; this album has less excuse for compounding the felony.
I say that in the knowledge that for many people reading this era 'is' The Moody Blues. I've always been impressed at how well the Moodies were able to grow their fanbase as the years went on and their records became further and further apart (of the AAA bands only Belle and Sebastian have been able to do something similar and they started from as near-to-nothing as you can get so were always going to do better). Bigger live shows and regular compilations keeping them in the public eye are a major part of it (not to mention regular re-issues of classic single 'Nights In White Satin') but there's something more than that. Look at how readily the band approach their music in this era the same way that younger newer bands would do and all but abandon their sixties sensibility: they don't just make music videos because they have to they embrace them, turning the songs into actual stories; they use all the latest technology on their recordings so that they sound as bang up to date as possible; they break the habits of a lifetime by giving up on well orchestrated albums weaved through with half-themes, mega concepts and a little bit of magic and instead go for the jugular: ten albums that all stand out immediately (though not always for the right reasons). While I don't whole heartedly approve (The Moody Blues had so much more to offer than they ever get a chance to post-break-up and a hippie view of the eighties from the 'inside' could potentially have made for some fascinating discussions), I do have a sneaky respect for how well The Moody Blues managed to update their career and stay popular long after the point when most of our AAA bands had peaked. Had the Moodies not re-branded themselves so successfully they might well have ended up has-beens a lot quicker, which would have been an even bigger tragedy. But as per the last record, do they have to sound so eager about signing their future death warrant? (being in fashion in any year is great news - until the year after when a new fashion has come in and you're effectively old and dated twice over). 'Sur La Mer' isn't classic Moodies even if it sounded that way a little back in 1988 when this sound was new; alas a quarter of a century on and records like this one (so over-reliant on technology pinpointed to a particular section of time) sound far older than anything from the sixties do.
There's a worrying slide too from the democracy that this band once were and which had held just about even through 'The Other Side' (even if you could see where the tide was turning). Justin and John write everything between them. Patrick plays practically everything, bar the odd bit of guitar and bass work. Drummer Graeme Edge seems to have turned up simply to check that the synth drums were programmed properly and helping out at rehearsals. Flautist Ray Thomas doesn't even do that much: displeased by the direction the band were taking in the studio, but unwilling to give up the touring work which still faintly resembled what the band always were, he simply stayed at home when the sessions were taking place (he isn't listed in the musicians credits, although his photo is used in the cheery toddler shots on the inside front cover). This leads to the uncomfortable sleeve credit: 'The Moody Blues are...' followed by 'Playing on this album are...'. Back in the old days - even the old days of 1981/83 - the band were there all day every day, ready to take turns coming up with different arrangements on a variety of instruments whether they had anything specific to work on or not - now half the band aren't even taking part in the recording of an album with their name on it. It's like the luddite revolution all over again - these robot synthesisers coming over here, stealing our jobs...The ironic thing is that, while John and Justin have long been 'in charge' of the band (certainly since Mike Pinder left in 1978) they gamble wrong: the band do need their 'other' members desperately. Without them, without even the cameo appearances on 'The Other Side', 'Sur La Mer' sounds as if it's an ersatz (or perhaps Moraz?) Moody Blue album, with far less of the band 'sound' than even two years before. The band are clearly in trouble.
That said, I like this album a lot more than 'The Other Side'. Both Justin and John have upped their game considerably, perhaps feeling that as they've put the band at risk of splitting up they have to get it right or else they've thrown away their heritage for nothing. Lodge's songs for 'Other Side' were largely abysmal: 'Like a rock I'm gonna roll over you *SMASH*' for nigh on five whole minutes, a drippy song about love being a fire and some odd guff about 'slings and arrows' that sounded like that commercial that really irritates you on TV (no I don't have a specific one in mind - they all sound the same and they all sound like this). But here Lodge comes up with the gorgeous punchy chorus on 'Want To Be With You' (a Hayward collaboration that knocks spots off anything else arrangement wise on this album) and comes up with 'Breaking Point', a chilling prog rock song of paranoia that sounds like something the band of twenty years ago would have invented had they had access to this technology. Hayward flexes his creative muscles, coming up with one all-time classic that would sound good from any era (deserved hit single 'I Know You're Out There Somewhere'), two songs that recall former glories ('Vintage Wine' and 'No More Lies') and one fascinating experimental song that makes good use of the modern sounds around him ('Deep'). While the other four songs aren't much cop, that's already a healthier selection of songs than last time around, with the band clearly making more of an effort at the writing stage as well as the recording one.
Once again the band have elected to work with big name producer (and ex-husband of two big Beatle names, Apple signing Mary Hopkin and Lennon 'Lost Weekend' girlfriend May Pang) Tony Visconti. We didn't talk about this much last time, but having heard the third album in this sequence 'Keys To The Kingdom' recently (an album which Visconti left partway through the sessions) I think I've under-rated what a part he plays in both projects. With him involved The Moody Blues sound young and dynamic, however wretchedly so that might be. Without him they sound faintly laughable, like a man having a middle-aged crisis and trying act young and whimsical without ever really getting back to his youth (it's a record full of tap-dances, bizarre codas that keep coming back in long after the song should have finished and a bizarre throwback in 'Celtic Sonant' that would have been booted off even a sixties Moodies album for being too 'self-indulgent'!) Most notably Moraz never sounds quite the same on that album (he'll leave the band soon after, mainly for a reunion of his old band Yes) - were the band just having an off-day? Or did Visconti know all sorts of production secrets the band didn't?
Talking of sounding 'young', perhaps the best thing about the whole of 'Sur La Mer' (except the stunning opening track) is the gorgeous inner sleeve. Just when The Moodies are trying to 'pretend' at being young, they remind us of just how they've come and celebrate their 21st birthday with shots of them as youngsters. There are no captions to give us clues so forgive me if I'm wrong, but I think the order is: the left column top Hayward (he still has 'that' look and a blonde hairdo!), Lodge in the middle (with the same cheeky grin!) and Thomas at the bottom (the hair and ears are impossible to mistake!) I'm not quite so sure about the right column - I think that's Graeme top right in the turban (he's wearing one and playing the drums in the other pictures, though I'm not quite sure why he's wearing it...) Patrick's equally cheesy grin in the middle and Tony Visconti looking very serious at the bottom. There's another collection of photographs of the band when they were young elsewhere too, a collage of the band in various poses at the seaside: Justin looks right at home in the sea, John's having a great time building a sandcastle and - perhaps in a joke at how the sessions are going - a be-trunked Thomas scowls, pouring scorn on everyone whose bought this album! (These are far more interesting - and relevant - by the way than the front cover, a painting named 'Le Fort D'antibes' (a real place in between Cannes and Nice) by Nicolas De Stael, which the Beatleheads amongst you might member was Stuart Sutcliffe's favourite artist (while the others were busy renaming themselves 'LOng John Lennon' 'Carl Harrison' and 'Paul Ramon' in the Silver Beatles, the bassist became Stuart Da Stael in his honour and one of his paintings would surely have been used in some Beatle packaging somewhere had Sutcliffe stayed a member; 'Beatles For Stael' anyone?)
The Moodies have clearly raided their mums dads and grandparent's lofts for these shots to illustrate the 'Sur La Mer' theme, but there isn't really a theme of water in this album ('River Of Endless Love' aside) - that would be silly (unless you're The Beach Boys, when it's only natural). Instead the kiddies pics seem to be here to illustrate another album theme: one of nostalgia. While obviously nostalgia for times past has been around since probably the day after Adam and Eve were 'made' (they probably reminisced with the snake over breakfast) nostalgia for something cultural becomes a big commodity round about 1988. By this point it's been long enough for the sixties to have gone by for people to realise the dreams they hold then won't happen anymore - and yet it's not long enough for people to have forgotten what they were like either. While people think of it as more of a 1990s trend (with the world getting ever closer to the line-in-the-sand that was the millennium), it's actually here at the very end of the decade that this trend starts. Many of the bands that made it big in the first half of the 60s (The Moodies included) are having 25 year anniversaries - unthinkable at the time when pop was meant to be impermanent - and the longer running time of CDs mean re-issues and box sets with new tracks are suddenly big sellers, much more so than merely copy-catting tracks on vinyl with a different cover. The Moody Blues, whilst trying to stay young and fresh, were also canny enough to play on their heritage, hence that spiel on the back cover about it being 21 years since 'Days Of Future Passed' and quoting in a corny way all their old songs (you wouldn't catch us doing that sort of cheap quip, although we QUESTION whether any fan born to THE CHILDRERN'S CHILDREN'S CHILDREN have ever paid that much attention to the JUST SINGERS IN A ROCK AND ROLL BAND's sleevenotes, quite a different beast in the CD era to the days of vinyl, anyway). This sort of thing would have seemed daft even in 1986 (when CDs didn't really exist in the mainstream yet) but makes perfect sense here on an album that has Justin talking fondly about the 'things we believed in then' on 'Vintage Wine' and on which the album's opening song is not only a sequel to an earlier work ('Your Wildest Dreams' - and arguably that was a sequel to much of the 'Blue Jays' songs like 'Who Are You Now?' and 'I Dreamed Last Night') but has the narrator crying out for his first love and willing her into the present. 'Sur La Mer' isn't really together enough to have a theme running through it - it's more a collection of ten different pop songs - but the closest is this thought of trying to willing the past to happen again.
Last minute addition: sometimes on researching these reviews even an old anorak like me learns something new. Apparently the 'Sur La Mer' theme refers not to the idea of 'water' at all, but the fact that all these songs were written 'in the key of C' '(sea' Geddit?!) Ha that's clever - if worrying (it's never good when the only songs a band can write are in the simplest key, the one without any black notes; no wonder this album sounds so lightweight and airheaded at times!) How ironic then that this album ends with a song called 'Deep'... Interestingly no modern pictures of the band appear anywhere in the packaging, the only record till 'December' that does this- did they really not want the record-buyers to see them looking old?
In a way it's a shame that the Moodies didn't try harder to tie all their songs into this theme, or at least one about the problems of growing up (something that 'Breaking Point' touches on too). As it is songs like 'Here Comes The Weekend' (Dooodooodooodoooo...', sorry it's impossible to hear that title without adding the riff, which is twice as infectious as Ebola and not something you really want to catch) 'Miracle' and 'Love Is On The Run' sound even more hopeless than on the last album, devoid of any point or reason except trying to be the band's idea of a contemporary pop song that badly fails. Even the songs that do work tend to sound better when you come across them unawares (an mp3 player on random for instance) instead of stuck together on the sound morass (Moraz?) of this album: 'Somewhere' is a killer single, somehow less convincing when heard as the opening to a full album of lesser attempts at a similar sound; 'Want To Be With You' is a great song crying out for a 'stripped down remix'; 'Breaking Point' and 'Deep' sound stilted after similar but less relentless soundscapes despite being genuinely inventive and pioneering, while 'Vintage Wine' is out of place, an all too convincing argument for going back to the old days and making the sort of music the band once used to effortlessly.
I guess really it all just comes down to taste (well so does every album come to think of it, but that would put me out of a job so don't think like that...) Do you prefer to have a record where the beauty is more than skin-deep and where you and your beloved purchase can spend hours discussing life, the universe and everything together? Or do you simply choose to have fun with an airheaded bimbo, whose less rewarding but far less work? There's a case to be made that albums like 'Sur La Mer' deserve to exist - but they don't tend to be the ones anybody talks about years on, except for completists like me; it's 'In Search Of The Lost Chord' and 'Seventh Sojourn' that excite and get the pulses rating - this album just leaves you clock-watching and waiting for the good bits to come on. The fact that I'm finding songs to single out for praise though - and not just the singles this time around - proves that 'Sur La Mer' has done something right compared to it's predecessor and if you can forgive the dates sound, the awkward filler, the lack of band vocals, the absence of almost any 'real' instruments and the lack of contributions from Thomas and Edge then there's a fine album in here somewhere. It's just that no fan in their right mind should have to make quite that many concessions to hear an album by a band as established and successful as The Moody Blues. While 'Sur La Mer' is indeed an improvement, most fans have long since stopped caring or resigned themselves to the fact that the Moody Blues they know and loved are gone and dead - the titbits that hark back to the olden days in this album (and which sound so much better) seem doubly cruel. Perhaps The Moody Blues should have named this album 'Tout A La Mer' ('All At Sea') instead.
It's a curious aspect that The Moody Blues should spend most of the 1980s getting it so wrong - and yet for one glorious moment got it all so right. 'I Know You're Out There Somewhere' is a song that's stuffed to the gunnels with the same array of twinkling irritating synths and expressionless drums of the rest of the period and yet this charming pop single doesn't put a foot wrong. Returning to the same theme of wondering whatever happened to some from your past as 'Your Wildest Dreams', Hayward goes one better by actively searching for his first love. Many 80s Moodies songs play it safe, but this one sacrifices all caution to the wind, adding in a daring middle eight that's almost-but-not-quite instrumental ('Yes I know I'll find you somewhere...') and causing Hayward to use every last inch of his impressive vocal range, from sweet falsetto to gruff bass on the line 'I can see the way ahead' and all it's variations. Along with the zingy melody that won't sit still for second, it's clear that Hayward is going to search high and low for his soulmate. Not that this song is in anyway contrived - for one brief shining moment it's like the sixties again with the song's twists and turns dictated by emotion and instinct, rather than planned to the ninth detail. While Justin still hasn't talked about his early love life so for all we know this song is fiction, the fact that he returned to the theme so many times and invested so much emotional interest in these songs suggests that there's something 'real' at work here. The result is one of those that really shouldn't work on paper: the chorus is repeated so many times, the verse doesn't necessarily fit together and the instrumental in the middle should test the listener's patience (at least it does when the band use the same idea elsewhere - next album 'Keys To The Kingdom' are full of little bits like that one that fall really flat). Curiously on an album dominated by 'thinking about the demographic', full of songs that sound as if they only exist to be released as singles, it's the most wayward Hayward song of the bunch that got picked instead. But it's clearly the right decision and for one glorious moment none of that matters: Hayward's lyrics, vocal and melody are all first-rate, full of an emotional investment we haven't heard in a decade or more and for once the rest if the band are right with him, pulling together to create one of the last true Moody Blue masterpieces. Even the eighties trappings work: this is a pop song, first and foremost, driven by hope and longing and confidence, though no less substantial for that because Hayward also makes it clear just how 'serious' he is about the search. The narrator never does find his soulmate again (or at least in song - he does in the band's best ever video that accompanied the single) but this time you're sure that the story has a happy ending: how can all that energy, drive and love fail? The result, even more than 'Your Wildest Dreams' is a triumph of feeling over sense and of timeless inspiration escaping the worst trappings of the era. The only downside is that after two successes from the same cloth the band never tried the template a third time, although we fans are still hopeful for an ending to that trilogy of lost love (we know you're out there somewhere...')
Against all the odds the seconds song on the album is rather glorious too. 'Want To Be With You' is a Hayward-Lodge collaboration that sounds from the vocal range as if Hayward wrote the slow plodding melancholy verses which again sits well outside his vocal comfort range and Lodge the up-tempo power chorus. While apart neither sounds that impressive, putting the two together was a masterstroke: a record that get's it cake and eats it, giving us both all the explanations for why a relationship should never be and then pleading for it anyway. Many 1980s Moodies recordings sound cold and distant, a long journey from perhaps the most emotionally warm records of anybody's, but they put that too good use here, with a song that in a n 'I'm Not In Love' way tries hard to be detached and unmoved but inwardly is a bag of nerves. Lyrically this is strong stuff for the period, the narrator reflecting on how the 'world is such a lonely place' and going so deep melodically you have fear he's not going to come back up again (by contrast the chorus of longing has him shouting from the roof-tops). By the second and last verse though (if this song has a fault it's that the track is over so fast for all its five minutes - another verse of back-story could have made all the difference) the narrator is ready to begin again, that his doubt and worry about chances not taken don't matter as long as he gets the next turning point in his life right. Impressively different to anything else the band have written, this is far more mature than anything on 'The Other Side Of Life' and once again sounds 'real' in a way that few of these other album songs do. For once Moraz is right on the ball here, teasing Hayward with snatches of colour and beauty with some faintly heard synths and letting his wailing distant guitar part take the strain before exploding in a cacophony of melody and brilliance (it's unforgivable that Moraz plays the 'flute part' on a synth instead of calling up Thomas to do it however!) Hearing these two songs together might have just convinced you that the band are as great as they've ever been - but alas 'Sur La Mer' takes a downward plunge hereafter...
'River Of Endless Love' sounds like an outtake from 'The Other Side Of Life'. The synths are used for pure noise rather than to drive the song along, Hayward and Lodge sound like aliens in their own song - the only 'real' sound here (this must be one of the only Moodies recordings in their history not to feature a guitar part somewhere bar a barely-heard acoustic part now and again) and the recording's lame attempts to 'rock out' with a plodding artificial drum sound are pitiable. Lyrically too this is rubbish by Moodies standards - we get the same old 'looking for a better world' speech that sounds as if it's taken verbatim from 'Lost In A Lost World' and all sorts of unsuitable metaphors that sound plucked at random ('I'm living in the hands of time, on the wings of love, at the edge of night'). That godawful sax part too on one of the most eighties recordings in history (uncredited, so it's probably Moraz again, though it does sound like a 'proper' instrument rather than a digital one) makes you want to scratchg your ears out right then and there. The difference between this and the 'real' emotion of the last two songs isn't just a gap anymore, it's a chasm. And yet even this song is superior to many from 'Other Side' by virtue of an exceptional middle eight that comes along just at the point where you're ready to admit defeat and give up. The melody has been straining to resolve itself downwards since the song started and the descending chords of the chorus are about as ordinary as they come, heard in every song since the beginning of time (or at least since The Spice Girls were young - that's a long time!) But the middle eight instead moves things upwards and the musicians stop whacking us over the head and play cat-and-mouse with our feelings as Justin and John (this is another lesser joint song) start singing about ambiguities; of a 'calm before the storm' where 'shadows lose their form'. Throughout the song the narrator has sounded more sure of himself than David Cameron when he's onto something evil and damning against the poor: till now we've never doubted that his 'river of endless love' is unstoppable and that he and his missus are going to fade away into the sunset the picture of happiness. However this part of the song, set late at night when he's less confident, adds a real air of poignancy to this track: what the hell is he going to do with all that love if he can't give it away to someone else? Is thirty seconds enough to save a whole song? Well, not quite sadly, but it at least makes this filler song more palatable than some other Moodies songs on the same levels, crashing squealing synthesisers and all.
'No More Lies' is a rare case of the eighties pop trappings warping a perfectly respectable song beyond all good measure. While the lyrics about trust are no great shakes, this is one of Hayward's better melodies, bright and cheerfully and driven by a guitar riff that manages to both roar and add a touch of warmth. You can easily imagine this song appearing on a mid-70s best-of in some parallel universe. The fact that Hayward not only sings but plays double-tracked, each part virtually identical but ever so slightly out of synch with the other is clever too, as if mirroring the couple who are so compatible in every way except one minor secret that niggles the narrator so. But what the hell is going on with the recording? Hayward's vocals are further down in the mix than not only the guitar and the synths as usual but also some of the most horrid random drumming on any Moodies recording, sounding not unlike the noise clothes with zips make when going round and round in a tumble-dryer ('Sur La Mer Avec Un Soapsuds'). Even more than normal this song ends up sounding artificial and false, made all the worse by the fact that this is such an open and honest sounding song, the narrator trying so hard to appreciate all the great things in their relationship but the melody naturally leading him back to those doubts over and over again, niggling away at him. I don't think we've ever heard Hayward paint a portrayal of love that was anything less than happy before and whilst this song is keen to point out that this is just a minor sticking point, it's fascinating to hear a different take on things - like finding out that Little Red Riding Hood's Granny was being hit by the bedroom tax or that the beanstalk grew thanks to manmade weedkiller. More songs like this would have been welcome, but there's something ugly about the way it's realised here, as if all that emotion counts for nothing against the sharp edges and mundanity of the backing. Perhaps they should have called this song 'No More Synths'.
'Here Comes The Weekend' doesn't even have the redeeming features of the past two songs and is perhaps the biggest travesty on the album. With a power-hook that's ripped wholesale from 'The Phantom Of The Opera' (a big hit in 1988, before the world found out which classical composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber had ripped off this time) and a scary movie style-riff 'didlleiddlewhooo...bamBam BAm BAMBamBAM!!!) it's apparent from the opening bars that this going to be one of those silly songs about a weekend of rest that's really damning the hopelessness of the week. The trouble with most of these style songs including this one is that there's nowhere to go; once the audience has yelled 'hell yeah!' the song ends up being a list of what you can do then you can't do elsewhere. We know all that and what's more the list of things to enjoy at the weekend is arguably less relevant for a rock musician like Lodge (who plays weekend gigs more often than weekday ones) than most people. This song feels as if we're being used 'somehow', as if the band have got the commercial pound signs in their eyes and reckon they can write any song designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, smother it in contemporary synths and we'll bite. If this was a new band designed to work in this very 80s climate then I might be prepared to give it more slack - but this is The Moody Blues, the band who turned expressions of the soul into best-selling pop songs and where no subject matter was too big or too dense for public consumption. Do they really think that 'yippee it's the weekend!' is a proper substitute for the aching agony of 'Nights In White Satin' or the doubts and fears of 'Question'? Just check out those lyrics: 'It's FRriday night, it's alright it's alright...'I'm all wired up, and I'm on my way, it's the weekend and it's starting today'. We don't learn anything here and all this song proves is that the narrator knows what day it is every Friday - well whoopedoowahhey! Another horrid sax solo that only gets close to being in tune on one note the whole song is potentially the most off-putting loathsome minute in the Moodies' entire canon. That said there is one clever moment here, where the whole noisy repertoire of Moraz dies away to reveal a relentless driving acoustic guitar riff bubbling along, as if below all the surface shenanigans and 'cutting loose' the narrator is keeping his own time-clock to when he has to hunker down and go back to work. Once again, while the song itself is if anything more questionable than even the lowest songs on 'The Other Side Of Life', the arrangement is at least showing signs of somebody thinking these things through and saves this recording from being a complete 100% disaster.
Onto side two and things are looking up for 'Vintage Wine', a nicely retro song that's arguably the first since as long ago as 'Octave' that comes without any desire to sound young and trendy. Though simpler than the classics of old and not really saying much other than 'gee the sixties - wasn't it great?', The Moodies sound an awful lot more likeable like this, with a proper band playing (that even sounds like Edge on the simple drum pattern) and the main part of the song given over to the nicely strummed guitars rather than Moraz' mayhem and madness. At odds with the past ten years of trying to sound young, here Hayward connects to when he genuinely did feel young, his years of being worldly wise and putting things right (as Dylan would say, 'I was so much older then...') telling us 'I want to be back there when the music plays and the lights go up on the empty stage'. Celebrating all his band once stood for, from an era that despite being just twenty years old must have seemed a lot longer during the peak excesses of the 1980s, Hayward compares the period to 'vintage wine', maturing nicely the older they get and as the nastiness of the world in the present turns people to look from the past. This could have easily become a 'then and now' song, full of snappy in-my-days-this-was-all-fields middle aged grumpiness, but Hayward is content to call back to all his old friends and fans who once in invested such time and energy into this band and admitting that for all the band's attempts to stay fresh and relevent, like us 'not a day doesn't go by when I don't think of them' (those years). I'm less sure about the 'a-o-oh, a-o-oh, ah-o-wo-a-oh-a-oh' chorus (which sounds like someone being sick) but there's full marks for another classic middle eight which again turns the song on it's head and like many songs with middle eights proves it's composer was at least thinking about how to offer something extra ('And if you're into wandering...') that suddenly turns all this nice laidback nostalgia into something more gripping. Though a little naive by his own best standards and quickly running out of steam, 'Vintage Wine' is one of the few songs on 'Sur La Mer' that doesn't 'bottle' it in the recording and the result is a song that can hold it's own with the best of them. If only Hayward had listened to his own advice and turned the clock back for good...
That said, we'd have then been without the third really decent song on the album 'Breaking Point', the only song of The Moodies that sounds all the better for rather than in spite of the period trappings. A Hayward-Lodge song best described as 'epic', it's a song of two halves, starting with an oppressive swirling mass of keyboards, sound effects and what sounds like a dinner timer pinging in the distance before finally becoming a full-blown 'scary' song a full two minutes in. Lodge starts the song and is at his best here, channelling the song's amateur dramatics ('Is that the wind on your face?') and the very image of still, a narrator so crushed by the weight of modern day living that he's no longer sure of anything but his own quiet space. The second half, introduced by a powerful clatter of drums (real thank goodness, though it's back to artificial for the song proper!) is sung by Hayward and is a surging power-pop song about how only sleeping brings respite and that 'though you want to sleep forever still you must return...' Moraz throws the works at this song, with an impressive array of textures and layers that really do sound as if the narrator is slowly being choked by everything he's trying to hold at bay. The vocals too are excellent, both the leads and the other-worldly Justin 'n' John harmonies that approach old glories (though Edge and Thomas are still sorely missed). There's a clever twist at the end of the song too that hints that this is a continuation of 'I Know You're Out There Somewhere' with the narrator having failed in his attempt to rekindle an old love ('Is that your voice I hear? Or the wind that's calling back across the years?) The Moodies don't often do scary, even though they're love of unusual noises means they've always been in the perfect position to do so and this is easily their best use of 1980s gadgets to conjure up a scenario that would have been chillingly powerful at the time (and still sounds rather good now). The most ambitious Moodies song since 'My Song' way back in 1971, this is the Moodies going back to writing sounds rather than songs, offering something that no other band could do. Of course it's not without faults: the main surging synth riff is horribly over-80s, the song goes on a minute too long and while aesthetically 'right' ducking Lodge and Hayward so low in the mix again is a pain for fans struggling to hear it all. But 'Breaking Point' gets a lot more things right than it gets wrong and finally tries to do something new and deeper than average. Another of the last great Moodies classics.
'Miracle' isn't bad either, another Hayward-Lodge collaboration based around a thrilling walking bass riff and some spiky guitar work. Recalling the theme of 'The Other Side Of Life', this song has the narrator 'closing the door and walking away from a life that I knew' and later 'leaving this city on a wave of despair'. Recalling 'April Comes She Will', the narrator relates events happening in June, July, August and September but the difference is that nothing happens - well nothing worth mentioning anyway. For all the narrator's vows about changing his life around and starting again fresh he finds nothing new to add to his fading world, no extra excitement and certainly none of the miracles he's after. Hayward chimes in with a stunning guitar solo, by far the most 'contemporary' sound he's come up with (fierce, loud, unrelenting) though still un-mistakenly him, pointing at all that longing going to waste. Hayward and Lodge sound good here, vainly trying to keep in touch with each other across a noticeably wide stereo pan that sees Justin on the far left and John on the far right, separated by a bank of Moraz noise and artificial drums in the middle. Alas all that good simply doesn't get anywhere - the narrator's frustration comes over loud and clear and it's probably apt that he simply repeats himself over and over throughout the song's second half. But the song sounds like it's being built for some big showdown, some major revelation that's going to put things right again - or not (the narrator should by rights be longing for his old life again, finding his patience paying off at last or discovering that his new and old lives are the same because he can't 'escape' himself - any of the three scenarios would have worked, but instead this song simply gives up and ends with the narrator still lost but still looking). Instead the song simply fades, failing to act on all that promise. What a swizz! Still yo8u have to say things are looking up on this album's second half...
Only to be brought right back down to earth again with 'Love Is On The Run', one of those anonymous Lodge ballads that has no real melody, not much of a lyric and yet still lasts for an agonisingly uneventful five minutes. Justin's soaring guitar, much more his traditional style than on most songs on the album, tries hard to add some warmth but with another bank of synths and a doom-doom-doom-thwack drum-keyboard part that's everything I hate about the period in one godawful rhythm, it's not enough. Once again this song returns to the feeling of 'lost loves', the narrator clumsily deciding that just because he's unhappy doesn't mean his lost soulmate isn't and deciding that his heart is 'on the run' (isn't that a medical condition?) 'You'll be the last to know when love has gone' he tells himself, many many times over, but so what? We don't get any real sense as per the glorious Blue Jays song 'Who Are You Now?' that this matters and the narrator's own reasons for moving on seem good enough for him to stop lingering and moaning about it all. It's the chorus that really palls though: da-da-da-da on one note, da-da-da-da-da on a note one tone lower and thewn back up to the starting point for another da-da-da-da-da. That's the sort of pattern going on in 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star', traditionally the starting point for most people learning to play a musical instrument in Britain. This is - allegedly - a deep song about falling out of love and debating whether you were right to say goodbye to a person from your past and other songs on this album have pointed to how deep and powerful that sort of a song can be. But with the title line repeated a grand total of twelve times across this song (once every 25 seconds or so) there's simply no space for any grand revelation or any sense that this song is about a 'true' feeling at all. Poorly written, badly performed and horribly over-produced, this is the problems of the Moodies in this period in a nutshell.
Thankfully Hayward's 'Deep' restores some sense of ambition to proceedings with another deeply unusual soundscape that's structured quite unlike any of his other songs. Returning again to his period love of unusually deep vocal lines, Hayward himself sings 'deep' on a song about seeking out the truth behind and the daily surface of life. More than one fans has heard a sexual double entendre at work here - that would seem unlikely given the Moodies' gentlemanly image and the lyrics don't really support that, but do note how often this track climaxes and then pulls away, only to build up all over again and the audible smirk on Hayward's voice as he sings sometimes. Elsewhere there's a curious instrumental middle where Moraz's keyboards come into paint a convincing portrayal of a barren landscape, full of ice and wind punctuated only by Hayward's guitar howls and another chilling guitar solo that tries to wrestle this way and that past the song's relentless confining riff but never does quite find a way past it. Had the earlier Moodies come up with this song there's no doubt they'd have done this sort of thing better: the keyboards still sound too shallow, too trite to belong in a world of such powerful emotions and the use of what sounds like a fire alarm in the background is a case of too many toys to play with and not enough respect for the music. Hayward too sounds distinctly uncomfortable on occasion, as if he still hasn't quite got his mind around what his sub-conscience has come up with yet (together with the deep growl of the vocal line, the one-word title and it's place at the album, was this song originally intended for Thomas to sing? If so then you could see why he'd refuse - the song is a mile away from his traditional whimsy-with-real-feeling songs, although you can also see why the rest of the band thought it would appeal for his deeper, growlier voice and tongue-in-cheekness only Ray could have pulled off). The result is a song that doesn't quite make it, being a journey just that too far out of reach of everyone's comfort zones, but at least this song is grasping for the stars and trying to unite the best of the soul-searching ambitions of the past with the pop-fodder of the present and after sitting through the barren album that was 'The Other Side Of Life' I'll settle for that any day.
The result, then, is an album that is still a long way away from where the Moodies used to be and what they represented, but is at least trying to get back there. 'Sur La Mer' is still a bit of a wet blanket, full of all-too-desperate attempts to sound young and fresh, but the band aren't merely sinking in these new waters - they've found a way to make it work with them too. As we said on our review for 'The Other Side Of Life' the band had to make a record like that one, fully dressed up in then-modern clothing rather than simply trying on a few new hats and sounding the same if they wanted to win over enough of a new audience to keep their sales going. It was a sink or swim time and the jury's still out on what that album was (to new fans it was a triumph - to old fans who remembered that the band could do it was a disaster) but at least it got people talking about the Moodies again. This album sounds all too often as if it's designed to continue the conversation on and nothing else and Moraz' synths are if anything even more irritating, simply because there's more of them. However 'Sur La Mer' is a much more impressive album all round, falling on its face only when the band try too hard not to try doing anything at all (with two of the lamest pop songs you'll ever hear) and actually taking quite a few leaps ahead on the other, more daring songs. Listening to this album now is a much more frustrating experience than it was then thanks to the dated technology and ultimately the price to sound good in 1986 may have been too high, relegating the band even more a bunch of has-beens when the next album comes along in 1991 than they might have been. But for a second here you can understand just why the Moodies were so adamant about throwing caution to the wind and updating their old sound to new technology, even though it cost them half the band and ultimately their chance of returning to relevance the way that more cautious sixties bands forgotten in the eighties were reclaimed in the nineties. At times 'Sur La Mer' is a genuinely impressive album and everything you'd hope the old Moodies would go on to be. It's just a shame there isn't more of that across the whole record and that some of the mistakes are quite as clumsy as they are. Alas things are get clumsier still on their next album, their last for nearly a full decade...