Monday 22 August 2016

The Moody Blues "Strange Times" (1999)

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The Moody Blues "Strange Times" (1999)

English Sunset/Haunted/Sooner Or Later (Walkin' On Air)/Wherever You Are/Foolish Love/Love Don't Come Easy/All That Is Real Is You/Strange Times/Words You Say/My Little Lovely/Forever Now/The One/The Swallow/Nothing Changes

'The dark cloak of 1980s hell had not been worn by The Moodies well, until the band re-learnt how to be bold, hired an orchestra and sang of growing old, now having adventured in time not space, The Moodies still tried to heal the human race, with a new album for our children's children's child, while still full of flashes of when this band were young and wild, full of thoughts and even more so care, this is a far superior millennium prayer, born for hearing on satin nights, and putting unjust wrongs to rights, nothing stays the same yet nothing changes, that's why we end with another monologue thankfully this time not about oranges'

 or 'We take it day by day because that's the English way. More tea, vicar?'

There's a weird looking cover that seems to have got the whole world in a shell tossed up on a beach. There's a weird half-concept about time and ageing that was only ever going to work round the millennium. There's an even weirder sub-1980s production, overdubbed with an orchestra straight out of the 1960s that wouldn't really have worked at any time but particular when this album was released. Weirdest of all, The Moody Blues - once the hippiest and least commercial minded of all bands - use the CD inner tray to advertise all the wonderful, if expensive, junk on sale from the fan-club of which the music seems to play a very small part (did anybody ever join 'The Moody Blues University' advertised in the box? We thought about creating an AAA University on similar lines, but the essays would all be 20,000 words long and each terms would last about five years). These, dear readers, are strange times indeed, both then and now (what would a Moodies themed album on Brexit sound like one wonders?) - but in true Moody Blues fashion the band embraces them all. Perhaps because of all the weirdness going on, the public never really clicked with what is still the last studio Moodies album proper (Xmas carols don't count on this site!) and 'Strange Times' became one of the poorest sellers in the band's back catalogue. However Moodies fans know to measure records in bigger terms than sales figures and chart statistics and like a spiral rising up to freedom (whatever that means), this album's weirdness is a thing to embrace rather than be ashamed of, especially after a full five albums of records that aimed little higher than making shiny singalong pop records. 'Strange Times' just feels like a Moodies record in a way that the keyboard-filled pop-heavy songs about rocks rolling over you and sitting behind the wheel watching the river roll never quite did. 'Strange Times' sounds like the kind of record a 1960s kid would expect The Moody Blues to still be making when they looked forward (as surely all time-keeping Moodies fans must have done) to the age of the great millennium without any knowledge of the punk, new wave, 80s pop and Britpop movements to come. These may be strange times discussed on the record, but The Moodies are on the outside looking in and commenting on them again rather than being so keen to be right in the middle of things.

Don't underestimate the dating of this record which 'counts' far more than most of the 'timeless' Moodies albums. 'Strange Times' was released a mere four months before the change of the millennium and is in fact the penultimate AAA album to be released in the 20th century (only CSNY's 'Lookin' Foward' came later). Much as people now pass the millennium fever and the worry about the millennium bug off as a bad dream that didn't really happen and we weren't caught up in, honest, there had been a building of anticipation for years about what the 21st century might look like. Several of our hippie bands especially discussed it: would the dawning of the age of Aquarius see the true hippie colours fly, even though Aquarius is traditionally one of the least hippie friendly signs? (It seems a shame to point out that the 2000 years of the age of Pisces between 0 AD and the year 2000 wasn't exactly peace, painting and fish). The children of the 1960s were all approaching fifty in the year 2000, traditionally seen as the 'age of power' when people had climbed up the ladder in their careers but not yet as far as retirement. Surely things would be different with hippies in charge? That's where 'Strange Times' is coming from, with the album written largely during the half-return of the 1960s values across the 1990s (when Britpop contained faint echoes of hippiedom and psychedelia), but recorded late enough in the decade for the panic to set in that the millennia isn't going to be the way it once seemed like it might have been in the 1960s.

In that sense 'Strange Times' is a sort of sequel for 'To Our Children's Children's Children' released almost forty years (minus two months) earlier, only this time it's an adventure in time rather than space. Instead of using rocket ships and science fiction to imagine what the future might hold for humanity, though, this is a group of fifty-somethings looking back on their youth and wondering why life ended up turning out so very different to the way they imagined in 1969.. The earnest opportunistic idealistic youth now has grandchildren and while they haven't stopped believing in their dreams for the youngest generation they're experienced to know you can't always get what you want.  The never-ending horizon, filled with pioneers and rocket-ships, is now an 'English Sunset'. 'The past has been and gone, it's time we're moving on...because tonight will never pass this way again' runs the chorus to 'Wherever You Are' which may as well be the album's motto. 'The Swallow' reflects on how 'time goes by, seems like the blink of an eye' - was it really four whole decades ago the future seemed unknowing and impenetrable? The love that once seemed so certain is now a ghost, the narrator 'haunted by your love' from years ago. 'The One' deals with the ups and downs of an artist who once had it all and lost it, the bumps on the way teaching him more than the times in the spotlight. 'Sooner Or Later', meanwhile, still looks towards the future for perfection in true Moodies style, as perhaps in another forty years' time we'll get the perfect world we always wanted? There's nowhere quite so alien as the future - and The Moodies act across this album as if they've just woken up from a Rip Van Winkle sleep, wondering how their younger selves would have re-acted to modern trends. If 'Children's album cover was The Moodies having fun and adventures in space, 'Times' cover is adventures in time, with graphics of clocks and sundials on everything.

This isn't just an album about ageing and things changing, though. Just as 'Children's was split between a utopian and dystopian model of the future, so 'Strange Times' darts back and forth between wondering where the old days have gone and remarking on how much everything stays the same. The other big album theme is 'love' - an unremarkable theme you might think, but even by Moodies standards there are an awful lot of romantic ballads on this CD and love seems to be the only thing that lasts the ages (except for the songs where it doesn't, of course - and no that's not necessarily a contradiction, The Moodies are a band built for near-contradictions and subtle similarities). Love lasts forever, even if relationships come and go, with the theme of past loves that's so common to previous Moodies albums here frequently, even after the narrators are happily married and should by rights have moved on. Love also never comes easy, no matter how many relationships you've had - whether you're the youth of 1969 embarking on your first great adventure or the wizened old man of the new century still struggling to learn how to cope with the unknowable. The Moodies have also come to believe that goals in life can change and that most of the world and time is an illusion (lunch-time doubly so), but that the feelings of love is what's 'real' and the true meaning of life. Back in 1969 'To Our Children's was a fairly lonely and isolated record - the good news is that The Moodies don't sound quite so lonely anymore. They've had a full and gregarious life (or at least the characters in their songs have) and perhaps the biggest lesson to pass down to their younger selves is not to 'worry'; that even if the love affairs come and go and hit ups and downs they never were left watching and waiting for 'someone to play with'. The future may not have been as great as it sounded on side one of that record - but it wasn't as isolated and upsetting as the second side either. 'Nothing changes and yet nothing stays the same' as Graeme puts it in the final spoken-word track (the first Moodies monologue in sixteen years - we told you this was a weird record!)

One of the other reasons 'Strange Times' feels like it pushes the clocks backwards so much is the sound. The Moody Blues are for some reason famous for using orchestration when arguably their dalliance with strings lasted for one whole album ('Days Of Future Passed' in 1967) and one whole live performance (the 1992 'Red Rocks' one). During the years in-between the band had got by with a cornucopia of keyboards - first by the oh so 1960s legend Mike Pinder, then by the oh so 1980s leg-end Patrick Moraz. The latter split with the band in a major way in the early 1990s sometime during the making of their previous album 'Keys To The Kingdom', with Moraz claiming in court that he was due unpaid royalties and had effectively been in charge of the band's sound since he joined around 1980 (nice try and Moraz was clearly central to much of it, but The Moodies had a sound before Moraz arrived and still had it after he left - and anyway most musicians wouldn't want to admit to being in charge of most of what The Moodies had made in the intervening years). The court case was even screened on television where it makes for fascinating compulsive viewing of you're the kind of fan who loves details of gruesome fall-outs (though for the rest of us hippie flower-children living on an imaginary cloud of perfection it's one of the most distressing things out there, along with sick puppies and dead unicorns). The Moodies don't just want to move back in time on this record, they want to eradicate the Moraz 1980s sound almost entirely (despite doing a pretty good job at replicating it post-Moraz on the half of  the 'Keys' record he didn't make). As a result 'Strange Times' is the most un-synth-ridden Moodies album since 'Octave in 1978 so of course it sounds more like the 'real' 'them'. And that's even without the orchestra overdubs overseen by arranger Danilo Madonia which are a natural replacement for Pinder and Moraz and make 'Strange Times' feel like a more 'real' album than anything they've done in a similar time period.

Unfortunately, though, what could have been the mother of all comebacks is slightly thrown off-balance by a curious need to still keep something of the 1980s sound going, even though by 1999 it all sounded far more out of date than a 1960s production would have done. Graeme's struggled more and more with his drumming over the years (the band have had Gordy Marshall as a 'second drummer' on stage for decades now), but really there's no reason to replace him with a drum machine on quite this many songs. The few times the synths kick in they're not the latest model but a pure 1980s casio sequencer (or at least that's what they sound like). 'English Sunset' even includes a hip-hop chant and football hooligan cries of 'England!' that sound like a New Kids On The Block member having a mid-life crisis. Like many a Moodies album since the break-up the band sound a little desperate. It's not hard to see why: the music business had changed phenomenally since the days when the Blues were in the black and an album like the original seven (by the Hayward line-up anyway) would never have worked in being sold to the general public. But chances are no album with the Moodies name could ever have sold in vast quantities to the general public (even as classic like 'I Know You're Out There Somewhere' didn't do that well); why not make an album for the millions of Moodies fans out there instead of stapling embarrassing nods of the head to inferior music? Though the loss of Moraz isn't something to be mourned too hard (he did the role he was asked to do well, though whether he should have done that role is of course another question), the removal of his keyboards leaves an empty space that even the orchestra can't fill. Though Ray and Graeme finally get a song apiece (their first since 1986 and 1983 respectively), it's also said that the last Moodies album to feature all four 'core' members and one that spends so much time discussing the old days is still largely the Justin 'n' John show. Even accepting the fact that Ray was poorly during the making of this album (according to some reports with diabetes - to others it was gout) and thus not much involved - again - it still seems awfully sad that he only gets a grand total of 90 seconds of the album to himself as a writer (and only a further three lines of 'Sooner Or Later' as a singer). He doesn't even get to play the flute, with the one vaguely flutey sounding piece (on album standout 'The Swallow') performed on keyboards. Graeme, too, only features on about half the album and seems to have been given 'Nothing Changes' as an afterthought, without the love and care and attention devoted to the rest of the album. John's stuck in twee ballad mode, which is better than the albums when he's stuck in aggressive rockstar mode but still not exactly adding up to a band firing on all cylinders (though 'Love Don't Come Easy' is one of his very best twee ballads it has to be said).

Thankfully Justin still sounds and writes much like he always did and a couple of clumsy tracks aside sounds like he's awaken from a bad dream. 'Swallow' isn't just a highlight of the album, it's a highlight of his whole catalogue and his best track since at least 'I Know You're Out There Somewhere', a beautiful song about growing old that still rocks with the power of the young. 'Haunted' is the lonely searching Hayward of old, last heard somewhere around 1972, finally breaking through the decades of perfect love and happy relationships to worry it's way into the album's heart. 'Foolish Love' might not quite match the Blue Jays songs about lost first loves or 'Somewhere' but it's another beautiful and oh-so-real song about still missing someone you thought you'd got over decades ago. The pretty 'All That Is Real Is You' is another under-rated track with a bounce and ease long missing from the Moodies songbook. The Justin-John co-writes 'Sooner Or Later' and 'The One' have their moments too. Add that lot together and no, 'Strange Times' isn't a masterpiece - and when this album gets things wrong (as on the shrill title track, the desperate contemporary 'English Sunset' or the 'Isn't Life Stra-a-a-a-a-ange?' re-write nobody needed 'Wherever You Are') it gets things pretty wrong (though not quite 'Keys To The Kingdom' wrong). But by and large there's a consistency, a drive and an experimentation to 'Strange Times' that makes it really stand out after three whole albums of The Moodies playing things safe and pitching songs to the lowest common denominator. The best Moodies album since 'The Present' (the last album that tried to play things both so safe and so strange all at the same time), it deserved to do better - a lot better.

Unfortunately the album's relative 'failure' (at least at first - the album did quite well when re-issued a few years later a s double-set with a best-of, but that doesn't really count does it?) all but killed the band off after this, as a creative and recording if not a touring force. Ray will depart in 2002, to suffer the ignominy of being the only AAA band member to be replaced by a girl (though Norda Mullen is his equal as a musician) and despite not having much to do in the band since 1983 the band will never quite seem the same after his loss. The keyboards will gradually take up more and more of the stage once again (though as one of the players is Hollies 'discovery' Paul Bliss we at the AAA can't be too upset at this). The only releases from here-on in will be an odd does-this-count? instrumental score to a documentary film about caves that's about as fun as it sounds (technically credited to Justin and John alone), Christmas songs and lots and lots of live albums (and the DVDs to go with them of course!) In other words, 'Strange Times' is a fine album worthy of the Moodies name which should have brought a whole new energy and interest to their career, which had been in cruise mode for a while. Sadly that courage wasn't properly rewarded and instead it's the CD's inner tray full of merchandise and goodies that wins the day, with every future Moodies release designed to make the most money whilst using the shortest possible amount of effort. Needless to say, if you're a true fan you'll like the slight danger and attempt to do something bold on 'Strange Times' more than you'll like hearing your 83rd live version of 'Nights In White Satin', hearing Justin and John's take on 'White Christmas' or turning white when you realise you've just paid a fortune for the privilege of owning an hour's worth of staring at caves. It isn't 'Strange Times' that's part of, well, strange times, but what's happened to The Moodies spirit since the 21st century began that's a bit...strange. Seen in context with the whole catalogue 'Strange Times' feels like a bit of a dead-end now, set apart from the straight line of commercialism between the relentlessly jolly 'Keys To The Kingdom' and wassailing weary 'December'. But it's this album that sounds most like The Moody Blues have worked out what to do with their old age - it's a true shame that, at the time of writing, these aren't just strange times but the last times, the final moment when The Moody Blues were the band people remembered instead of one that just tried to sell things. If that seems a bit harsh, remember The Moody Blues lasted longer without pandering to commercial tastes than most, but who seriously thought in the 1960s that the band's last big group project would be a Christmas covers album?

The album starts with an 'English Sunset', with The Moody Blues clearly singing about Brexit seventeen years early. Just as 'The Sunset' from 1967 couldn't have been recorded in any other year, so 'English Sunset' couldn't date from another other era except this one. The most relentlessly contemporary Moodies track since 'Go Now' thirty-five years earlier, it features bursts of hip-hop, squeaky synth strings, drum machines and a breathless melodyline that crushes along so fast it doesn't have time to make much of an impact. Released as the single, many fans were impressed with how modern the band sounded but the general public stayed away - perhaps because this track sounded like every other song around in the year 1999 and lacked the Moodies' extra identity. Justin's lyrics are strong for the most part, recalling 'To Our Children's 'Gypsy' with a tale of a country that doesn't know what it stands for anymore 'rolling down the track' and about to crash headlong, with everyone powerless to stop it. However they're at odds with the music which seems to celebrate the modern day and is genuinely exuberant and one heck of a lot more forceful than your typical Moodies song. The track sounds slightly unfinished too, despite the many layers of extra on the actual production: the chorus 'I feel the rhythm of the Earth in my soul tonight!' arrives after the song has leapt off a temporary cliff and brings the song crashing to the ground as it half-repeats the verse again - not so much the soft golden cushion to land on as another assault course to navigate when your head is still spinning from the last one. There's a distinct lack of a band feel about this song too which will marr many of the tracks to come: few harmonies and the loudest instruments in the room tend to be from the 'extra' band members. Still, Justin's in good voice and in even better form as a guitarist and as the lyrics tell us, if we can take this album day by day (and song by song) then that's ok - it's the English way. Despite all of the above, I still shudder when I hear the line 'more tea Vicar?', the football Holligan cries of 'Engerllland!' or here Justin doing his grunting impression of Snoop Doggy Dogg however.

'Haunted' is a pretty and overlooked song, one that surely would have been a better candidate for the only album single as it sounds both contemporary and Moodiesy at once. A typical Justin ballad about love and loss, it starts off with icy cool detachment and explodes in fires of burning passion by the middle in the same way as his similar songs about past loves, from 'Who Are You Now?' through to 'I Know You're Out There Somewhere'. Once again the song takes place at night, after the rest of the house is quiet and Justin's narrator mind is wondering, but it's a more colourful song than the 'Blue Jays' takes on the same theme in the 1970s, with a busy backing track that gets in the way of what should really be a pure and simple kind of song. Goodness knows why the band start singing 'doo-dit-dit-dit-doo-doohs' on the chorus too like it's a Fred Astaire musical or a Manfredd Mann song: this song isn't meant to be pretty, it's meant to be powerful. After all, the narrator is only slowly admitting to himself just how much he was hurt from a relationship gone by. 'Life goes on' the narrator sighs, but it's clear his heart's not in the present but the past as memories brush past him like ghosts. As with so many Justin songs from the 1960s and 1970s, you can never go home once you've left it, but that doesn't stop the narrator trying and the powerful middle eight has him as a river getting lost trying to find its way to the sea, desperately to connect with someone the way he once did. Worst of all is the silence: Justin's memories are mute, scary silent movies that taunt him where his life used to be so...musical. Much as the band have tried to dress this song up in finery and cheery singing, it's a much deeper, scarier, real and far more, well, haunted, song than it's usually given credit for being. A remix one day would be great.

'Sooner Or Later' by contrast doesn't say much but has a lot of fun saying it. A co-write between Justin and John, it features the pair and Ray alternating lines (John/Ray/Justin) on an uplifting song about recovering from bad times and getting back on your feet and it's great to hear all three singing together one last time. After all, as the song says, bad times are just a phase that means good times are around the corner 'sooner or later'. A rather unfortunate lift from the Aled Jones' Snowman theme of 1982 aside (they really should have noticed the 'Walking On Air' hookline), this is a nicely inventive song that doesn't sound quite like anything else The Moodies have ever done, jolly without being silly as they can sometimes be. Like many a strong Moodies song, the middle eight is especially good: 'Love is out there waiting for you...Love will surround you', you just have to get on with your life as best you can until you find it. Note an early reference (the AAA's earliest?) to getting a 'message from your online' - The Moodies' internet community was one of the first and strongest back in the days when reading a site like Alan's Album Archives seemed like the sort of science fiction you could only find on Moody Blues, Pink Floyd and Who records. Happy days!

'Wherever You Are' starts off magnificently: a haunting mournful synthesiser lick, the sound of ticking clocks and brushes of sound that come as close as any Moody Blues song post-1978 to featuring the spirit of the mellotron. However the song itself is one of those ugly awkward John Lodge ballads where the lines don't quite fit the music and the music is clearly trying to go somewhere more interesting than where it ends up going. Like many a Lodge song this one reads better than it sounds, with some intriguing lyrics about moving on from bad days into good and making the most of  what's happening today. Unfortunately we get them all twice, sandwiched together with a typically curious instrumental section that recalls 'Hole In The World' from 'The Present' - it's very inventive and shows off contemporary technology nicely but why is it here and why does it last so long? The song isn't helped by the fact that it's effectively a Lodge solo song, with John singing triple-tracked instead of using the talents of his bandmates and featuring lots of keyboards rather than anything the band themselves play. Some Ray Thomas folky flute, for instance, would have 'earthed' this song no end - with all those synthesisers at times it feels like the song is going to float away. Still, the song earns half a mark for the haunting keyboard riff alone which automatically puts it higher than a lot of John's other big weighty romantic ballads recently.

If 'Wherever You Go' sounds like the 1980s Moodies, 'Foolish Love' sounds pure 1960s (no guessing which I like better). Justin's poppy song recalls 'Vintage Wine' from 1988 but with more purpose: once again he's running down memory lane but this time he's marvelling at the fact he was a brave enough to take a chance on his beloved - and that she still is his beloved. 'I love you as I love you then' sings Justin sweetly, but this is no twee ballad: the pair had to work hard to make things right and overcame many bad times; only now, after decades of security does it feel like there is 'no danger and no doubt'. This was, after all, a gamble as all love is at the start will it work? Are the two compatible? Will the 'flying', the feeling of bliss, ever last? Foolish as all love might be, though, in this narrator's case it's worked and he's delighted, wishing he could go back in time and tell his younger self not to worry. Like all of this album's songs that speak about the passing of time, this one feels musically like The Moodies could have recorded it at any time period (annoying drum track aside), but lyrically the band had to be of a certain age to write a song like this one. It's a sort of before and after shot, a spot the difference picture where everyone has aged but the music sounds pretty much timeless. Another vastly under-rated track.

'Love Don't Come Easy' proves that John can shine when he sings from the heart instead of his bank balance and it's one of his best songs - perhaps in eighteen years. Picking up on the theme of the last song, John's narrator is in a very different place. Though once equally in love as Justin and partner, this couple have drifted apart and instead of well-worn memories he keeps discovering new and unpleasant things about his beloved. 'Scared of losing you', John is terrified by the new look of disdain in his lover's eyes he's never seen before and wonders if she always had it but love blinded him too much to let him see it. Reflecting that love isn't easy, he longs to turn back the clock to a time when love seemed simple and he, too, was 'flying' on the wave of love. John's not going to give up without a fight though, vowing 'I can make it up to you! I can heal the pain!' Musically this song is a fight between the light and the darkness; over in the happier corner is the slightly cloying chorus that 'time changes for the better', while other on the 'secondary' chorus we fall through the rabbit hole of an eerie minor chord and the admittance that 'love don't come easy'. The Moodies are famous for their use of orchestras, largely erroneously given that most of the ideas on 'Days Of Future Passed' weren't by them but arranger Peter Knight and weren't that great anyway. However, this song features a truly stunning use of orchestra, as the layers build and build and what started off as a safe and simple song builds into a scary world full of poison, nightmares and fragility. John's vocal is something rather special too, just detached enough to get the idea of two partners not talking to each other across, while Justin's snarling wild beast of a guitar solo is impressive, quite radically different to his usual 'clean' sound. One of the best Moodies songs for years and one of the greatest 'Lodgesongs' of them all.

The sweet 'All That Is Real Is You' sounds more insubstantial than it should coming after that last track and is perhaps the most Moodies-ish on the record, with a hummable and again very 1960s chorus and not many production trappings. The lovely melody sounds like a folk song, rounded and cyclical in contrast to Justin's lyrics about searching for the un-findable everywhere in his life. The future isn't what the young Hayward once thought it would be: instead of utopian romantic dreams he longed for he's found a world full of people scrabbling to get by, where 'all of the silver and all of the gold seems worthless to me, lifeless and cold'. Even his memories of days of future passed, usually so sacred to Hayward, are 'illusions' and he knows that his past wasn't really like that at all. Instead the only thing he can be certain of is 'you', singing the word with so much feeling it's enough to make his sizeable fanbase weak at the knees once again. While most of the song is downbeat, the tune going right down low as if the narrator is staring at his shoes, a fiery middle eight reaches out to Justin's partner and plays the same melody in reverse, reaching up for the stars. 'Bring me back home, my love' he soars, in contrast to all the past Moodies songs where home was an impossible place to find, because his love is back home and love isn't just all you need but the only thing in life that's truly 'real'. Another special and under-rated song from a writer having a particularly strong album which is another candidate for the single that got away. 

We've commented a few times on this site at how much better The Moodies were when they were looking inside themselves, not out to the wider world. The title track of 'Strange Times' is a case in point: whenever the band try to paint the history of the world and mankind and civilisation in a lyric they tend to get all overblown and mystical. With lyrical references to 'the house of the water sign' (which is a nonsense: in 2000 we were leaving the house of the water sign Pisces for air sign Aquarius), crystal waters, wastelands filled with snow, falling stars and 'temples of greed', it's safe to say that this is the most 1960s lyric on a Moodies album since the 1960s. And sadly about the worst: it's hard to write a lyric that's clearly meant to be about the modern day and how strange it all is using the strange trappings and stylings of the past to make your point. Especially when such a hippie lyric is accompanied by a backing track that's almost as contemporary noisy as 'English Sunset', complete with rat-a-tat drumming and synth strings (although an organ hook straight out of the Denny Laine-era early Moodies makes for a nice contrast). The cheesy key change near the end also makes the most Eurovision of Moody Blues songs - and sadly more like the songs that get nul points than, say, Frances Rufelle or Gina G's contributions. Though 'Strange Times' is of the weakest tracks on the album, even this track has its charms though: 'Years went by, time just fell away' sighs an elder Hayward as an oh-so Moodies guitar lick hits a modern drum machine head on, with the band sounding hopelessly lost in this strange modern world. A later verse finds Hayward and Lodge in a happier mood though: it's not that the world has moved on so much as that time has stood still cocooned in the Moodies' own bubble. Had the rest of the lyric spent more time focussing on the band (who are the only thing that aren't strange in the modern world and still keeping the sixties faith) rather than the strange modern world, this might yet have been a strong song.

'Words You Say' starts with the sound of a real orchestra for only the second time on the album - they even tune up at the beginning of the song as if to prove it. Lodge's third lovelorn ballad on the album, this one is less twee than 'Wherever You Are' but not as strong or heartfelt as 'Love Don't Come Easy', it sounds remarkably like the similarly, umm, moody songs from the 'Blue Jays' LP.  A promising opening has John's narrator listening to his loved one and wondering why he feels annoyed rather than sympathetic as per years gone by, before returning to his memories when times were better and going back to sleep pretending the changes in his life that hasn't happened (again, very Blue Jays where sleeping was a key theme). The song is basically a sequel to 'Talking Out Of Turn', only John's narrator is being rude by ignoring his partner rather than speaking his mind - still the response is the same as he worries about what his love has come to because he's still passionately in love (the song reaching a crescendo on the words 'you are in my heart and soul'). Ray's brief flute solo is easily the highlight - every song on the album (or nearly every song anyway) should have featured his playing too - closely followed by Justin's oddly flashy guitar solo, which sounds more like a Jimmy Page or an Eric Clapton flourish than his usual precise self. Though most of the song is hopeful for a reconciliation, the final door-slam suggests that it's never going to happen, with the song eerily fading on a bunch of alien morse code bleeps that recalls Justin's work on the 'War Of The Worlds' project.

Ray's final song in the Moody Blues canon is his best for a while, pretty but also pretty darn short. The flautist was famous for writing songs for his children ('Nice To Be Here' and the wonderful 'Adam and I') so it seems fitting that he bows out of the band with a song for his newborn grand-son Robert. It's a song about the old and new, endings and continuation, as Ray - who was already preparing to leave the band - offers up a song for the newborn babe that is in many ways a manifesto for what the Moodies stood for. Urging his grandchild to believe in fairytales and pixie dust and that anything is possible in life, Ray warns him that life may be hard and he might have to learn how to life his life 'slowly', but the world is also a wondrous place full of possibilities and an awful lot of love can get stuck to that 'pixie glue'. With its talk of wizards and angels and streams and shores (see 'And The Tide Rushes In' particularly...), you could easily imagine this song on a 1970s Moodies album and Ray's voice sounds remarkably good (certainly better than on 'Keys To The Kingdom'). A charming melody is also a good fit for the band, humbly reaching up to the stars on a sea of possibilities open to the newborn baby, the same way 'Adam and I' once did. Unfortunately Ray's already run out of ideas 1:06 into the song and repeats both the chorus and first two verses again before bringing this song to an uncertain halt a mere 1:45 in (thus making this the shortest Moody Blues song that-isn't-an-instrumental-or-a-spoken-word-piece in their pantheon). It's a real shame that Ray didn't hand this song over to Justin or John to finish off for him (the way he did on 'Kingdom') because with a few extra verses, a middle eight and a flute solo 'My Little Lovely' could well have become the loveliest song on the album. Instead Ray's finale with the band he'd been with for thirty-five years (a six year sojourn aside) rather sums up his contributions to the band: flashes of genius that aren't always followed through and who was ultimately overshadowed by more prolific writers within the band.

John Lodge was always the Moody happiest working with orchestras and the band themselves barely appear on 'Forever Now', the last of his quartet of romantic ballads. A little on the lush side, this is one of those songs that is both authentic and incredibly saccahrine at the same time, switching gears from honest outpouring to Elton John style commercial preening in the blink of an eye. John's vocal is the best thing about this song and the clumsy chorus ('Why can't it be, forever now?') the worst as he returns to the long pauses and clumsy chord progressions of 'isn't Life Stra-a-a-a-ange?' The lyrics are, perhaps surprisingly, the first ever on a Moodies album to be primarily concerned with death, as John sings about wanting to live forever and whether mankind would make better or worse progress if he had more time to do everything he needed to do. John admits to 'living in a child's world of simple fascination' as he ponders this thought and returns to the tried and trusted 'To Our Children's philosophy of imagining a world both better and worse than the one we have. On the one hand, man has more time to discover the universe and learn new secrets - on the other he stands at a crossroads 'waiting for the new millennium', perhaps on the edge of having thrown everything he's learnt away. An angry middle eight intrudes on the song as reality creeps in on what is a surprisingly down and bitter section for a Moodies song ('There's no way out, there's no return!'), but this only adds to the gravitas of the song: we have no time to make our decisions, so we have to make them count. John then finds room to start sounding more like his old hopeful self again as he wonders if future generations just might have the ability to find a way of living forever. A mixed song, with a good and very Moodies concept let down by a slightly forgettable and unfinished sounding tune and another oddly aggressive Hayward guitar solo that really doesn't fit with the orchestra.

Hey, no surprise - that The Moodies return to their noisy poppy 1980s sound one last time. Fittingly, though, it's part of a lyric about an un-named someone trying to score a hit after being away from the music business for years. 'The One' is a John and Justin song dominated by the former, it's at one with other walking pace rockers like 'Gemini Dream' and 'Roll Over You' with crashing riffs and busy rhythm tracks trying to distract from the bonkers lyrics. However it's the words that are the most interesting feature - especially the debate about who John is singing about. He could be singing about quite a few people here (given that this song could have been written anytime between 1991 and 1999), with the 1990s giving rise to many careers long since dead. However this song sounds personal and sung from personal experience, which means it must be someone close to the pair. Ray would be an obvious target: after sitting out most of the 1980s he was back writing and singing again on both this album and 'Kingdom', although his eccentric contributions to both don't really sound like he wants to be 'the one' again. So, instead, here's my candidate: former bandmate Mike Pinder, who broke nearly fifteen years' worth of silence (while bringing up a family) with a run of characteristically cosmic albums in the mid-1990s. Though admittedly neither 'Among The Stars' or 'A Planet With One Mind' sound like quite the tabloid-journalism-kissing and the-one style egotism of the singer in question, Mike did a lot of publicity for his two albums and after decades as the Moody most reluctant in public seemed to be everywhere (at least in his new home of America). John and Justin also have form singing about their old partner and once again, following 'To Our Children's, the orchestral album of goodbyes 'Blue Jays' is the previous Moodies album that shares most similarity with this one (the record where Mike left partway through with several sad songs about his departure). Then again, perhaps this song is about Denny Laine who was going through an interesting period of releasing more albums than he'd ever made in his life in 1999 - sadly most of them the same album shifted around a bit for the Hallmark Greetings Card own label (though it's worth pointing out that Judtin never actually met his predecessor and John only crossed over with him for a few months at most). Whoever inspired the song, the Moodies clearly hold whoever this is with affection, greeting his return with a jolly 'no surprise!' happy birthday style greeting, accepting his need to tell tall tales in the press to plug a new record and supporting him through times of being forgotten with the promise that 'we all still love you'. It's all rather sweet in fact - or it would be if the Moodies had stuck with the main tune instead of throwing the oddly aggressive and shouty chorus and riff in there.

The album highlight, though, is surely 'The Swallow', a truly beautiful Hayward song about the album's twin themes of living 'real' life away from the spotlight and the passing of time. Now content to be 'in the really slow lane', Justin is removed enough from the carrion clies of rock stardom to reflect that those times weren't his happiest moments at all - it's the nothing days spent with someone who truly loved him that he'll look back on and remember. 'Only lovers feel like we do!' Justin boasts as he relishes the idea that his partner knows everything about him and still wants to be with him - that compared to his younger days there are 'no more mind games, simple and true!' Justin takes just enough of a sneaky look from his cosy cocoon  at the world outside to check it's still there and in a rather far-fetched metaphor compares it to a swallow gliding up in the air to freedom. In other words, in contrast to the 'strange times' of the title track, the world's back on the path it should always have been on and it no longer need the Moody Blues to 'save' it so Justin can go back to enjoying his lovely quiet life and can even dance a happy jig near the end of the song. 'Swallow' really plays to all of The Moodies' Strengths here, with some stunning acoustic guitarwork (sadly rather thin on the ground across this album), some lovely harmonies, a beautiful lead vocal from the song's composer and a delightful flute part which marks Ray Thomas' last contribution to the band. The final cosy duet between the two guitars, wrapped in a cotton wool blanket by the orchestra, is a real moment of celebration and smiles as The Moodies sound anything but blue. Completely ignoring the rest of the album's need to impress commercially, this is what the reunion run of Moodies records should have always sounded like - doing their own thing, merrily, lost in a world of their own making. One of the best songs not just on this album but in the band's catalogue as a whole, the melody is so infectious you really do believe the world will spiral up to freedom.

It's left to Graeme to wrap the album up with 'Nothing Changes'. And in a way it hasn't: back again, for the first time since 1970, comes the portentous monologue as the drummer breathes mystical thoughts in a thick Brummie accent. It's a bit like a musical game of Where's Wally?' without the bobble hats but with lots of fan-pleasing references: 'Sitting in a class of the future's past' 'have you heard the word?' and 'Life is still a simple game'. In that sense it's a fitting end to an album that's all about the passing of time and the difference between 'then' and 'now'. However it's a shame that the theme of the millennium, which is so subtle across the album packaging and lyrics, is used so heavily handled here. In 'Where's Wally' terms, this is like working out every page across the book only to find all the answers have been given at the back so you didn't need to do all that work anyway. It's also hard to imagine a Moodies fan playing this track for fun outside the concept of the album, which admittedly not many fans do with Graeme's monologues anyway, but at least 'The Balance' isn't time-sensitive (well, not for as long as oranges still exist in the world anyway) and 'Late Lament' is positively universal for any time period. 'Nothing Changes' became pointless the minute 2001 came and - as the lyrics put it - just as soon had come and gone. That said, it's hard not to feel a rush of sentimentality as that final rush of Moodies harmonies rush in (sadly minus the departing Ray Thomas) on what is, by most accounts, the last 'proper' track on the last 'proper Moody Blues recording (at least to date, though seventeen years and counting seems an awfully long time, even if it does go by in the blink of an eye nowadays). With the band suddenly sounding much like they always did  (in contrast to Graeme's clearly older voice), it really is a case of nothing changing, but nothing staying the same.

Overall, then, 'Strange Times' is a rather overlooked and perky little album, a quieter affair than most of the past Moodies reunion records that got rather lost in the rush of the millennium album traffic and ignored compare to the noisier, more commercial Moodies records of recent years. However, that slightly more inward-looking humbler sound is far more in keeping with the sound of the original Moodies records and the addition of the orchestra (for the first time since 1967 in terms of a full band studio album) makes 'Strange Times' sound far more like the 'lost chord' the band have been searching for since 1978 than any of their preening pop records. Yes the album could have been stronger: not all the fourteen songs are great, the John Lodge string quartet really belongs as part of a mini-album and sounds wrong heard separately, Ray and Graeme are as under-used as always and there's a distinct lack of the Moodies performing these songs as a band. But there's so much more good here than bad: there's a much bigger sense of identity and what The Moodies stand for across this record and it's lovely to hear them sounding more at peace with themselves as they grow old, while Justin and John also put more emotion into the album songs than they had in years. The performances are generally excellent and you can actually hear the acoustic guitars, bass, drums and flute for once without synthesisers getting in the way all the time and even the orchestra is tastefully done, adding washes of colour to set the scene rather than large dollops of technicolour paint. Best of all, though, are the songs: poignant, powerful and pretty a good half of this record can stand up to anything the band did in their heyday and even the rest isn't that far behind. The fact that a record this strong became a flop is far more indicative of the strange times we were living in musically in 1999 than anything this album got wrong. This album about the then-present is easily the best Moodies album since, umm, 'The Present', spiralling not like a crow into synthesiser hell as on so many albums of future past and present but like a swallow gliding up to freedom. 

A Now Complete List Of Moody Blues Related Articles At Alan’s Album Archives:

'The Magnificent Moodies' (1965)

'Days Of Future Passed' (1967)

'In Search Of The Lost Chord' (1968)

'On The Threshold Of A Dream' (1969)

'To Our Children's Children's Children' (1969)

‘A Question Of Balance’ (1970)

'Every Good Boy Deserves Favour' (1971)

'Seventh Sojourn' (1972)

'Blue Jays' (Hayward/Lodge) (1976)

'Songwriter' (Hayward) (1977)

'Long Distance Voyager' (1981)

'The Present' (1983)

'The Other Side Of This Life' (1986)

‘Keys To The Kingdom’ (1991)

'Strange Times' (1999)


Surviving TV Clips 1964-2015:

The Best Unreleased Recordings 1961-2009:

Non-Album Recordings Part One 1964-1967:

Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1968-2009:

Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part One 1969-1977:

Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Two: 1979-2015

Essay: Why Being A Moodies Fan Means You Can Never Go Home

1 comment:

  1. Is the song, "The One" from Strange Times about rock stars in the tabloids or perhaps Paul McCartney as the words "helter skelter" and "yesterday" are in back to back sentences?