Released in 1968 at the insistence of his colleagues, David Axelrod's first solo album, in retrospect, seems to have been bubbling under, not as a possibility, but as something that would just inevitably happen. Listening to the man talk about the album's inception over thirty years later and you may come to the conclusion that he was unwillingly forced into its creation. But the contents of the album tell a completely different story. Indeed, the music on this album explodes and vibrates with intensity and passion. Upon hearing the album, the listener must assume that its creator labored over it ceaselessly for extended periods of time and squeezed every last emotion he had ever felt into its brief twenty seven minutes.
In fact, Axe has famously remarked in recent years that he composed the bulk of the scores and arrangements for this album, for better or for worse (in his opinion), in just about two weeks. Sitting in his work room, surrounded by William Blake's illustrations and reading the Blake poems that made up the greater work Songs of Innocence over and over again, Axe focused hard and made up his own soundtracks for Blake's words.
Originally, it was meant to have harmony vocals in place of where all the strings are now heard. These vocals were to be done by the rock band Hardwater, whose album Axe had produced earlier in the year at Capitol. The band was to recite the poems that inspired the compositions, but, for whatever reason, at the last moment, the album was decided to instead be an instrumental affair. The only holdover from Hardwater was the group's dissonance-obsessed guitar prodigy, Peter Wyant — a fantastic foil to the album's other guitarist, competent but staunchly traditionalist Howard Roberts.
Compiling his favorite musicians —and the cream of the Los Angeles session circuit crop— the album sounds like exactly what it is: a head-on collision of the traditionalist, perfectionist slant from which it was born and the all-out, no-holds-barred attitude of a blossoming genius left to his whims and his whims alone.
There was no set precedent for the music on this album. A singular work of classical dynamics, cozying up to rock and roll rhythms and jazz improvisation, all filtered through the bigger-than-life scope of late-60's American idealism. To say that this music is potentially life-changing is probably true, but to assume that that achievement was among its creator's concerns is probably inaccurate. There is a certain ease to this music. The huge symphonic blasts mixing up with impressionistic, longing melodies may border on over the top for some, but there is never a moment when it doesn't sound completely and fully genuine.
When David Axelrod wrote this music, he meant every single note of it.
From the album's opening 'Urizen,' you know something is up. A very dissonantly modern string section is the first thing you hear, in ascending register. It just goes up and up until reaching the point of shrill, when the tension breaks into what is probably the most traditionally 'rock and roll' sounding rhythm on any Axe record. Pete Wyant wails away, finding these incredible harmony lines that seem to only exist when he plays them, and the song doesn't make any tangible sense until over two minutes in when the famously sampled drum (Earl Palmer) and electric bass (Carol Kaye) breakdown comes in and the song defines itself in clear terms. For years I, frankly, didn't like the song. It was too dissonant and not defined clearly enough. But, to me, that is a defining aspect of the song's enduring modern slant. It is dense and melodically complicated. The only consonant aspects of it lie in the progressions — the current chord not making complete sense until the next one is played. What a start.
From there, the album moves into the signature Axe tune: 'Holy Thursday.' A buoyant and ebullient tune, it isn't my favorite Axe song, not now or ever, but it is certainly one of his strongest. Allmusic.com claims it's based on a riff from a Count Basie tune, but I'm not so sure about that, as it must be a Basie tune I'm unfamiliar with. In any case, it's gorgeous. Gentle and restrained one moment and big and boombastic the next. 'Is that trembling cry a song? Can it be a song of joy?' wrote William Blake in his original poem. And that reflects in the tune because it is rather jubilant until the last portion, when the key changes, along with the entire song's emotion. A perfect reflection of Blake's original work; a bittersweet celebration of life itself. And one of Axe's most recognized breaks opens the tune as well.
'The Smile' is next and it is a perfectly complimentary piece to Blake's poem as well. A duality nature lies in the tune's minor-to-major changes and repetitive mood, just as Blake says smiles convey in real life. For a long time, the tune was my favorite piece on the album, because of the glorious ending. The vampy repetition builds and repeats faster and faster until it finally explodes into a new theme entirely, all within the final minute. Equal parts beauty and deceit, the song then implodes on itself for a brief, but foreshadowing, exit with a quiet, melancholy solo piano fadeout.
Only to be followed by 'A Dream' and the album's title track; arguably the two prettiest pieces Axe ever did. Neither one has a moment of dissonance or ill will. 'A Dream' is a short meditative tone poem, with a pretty little harpsichord line, perhaps upping the album's psychedelics factor a bit. The lush (even for this album) string accompaniment falls in and, despite being the album's shortest piece, it is arguably its most satisfying.
Following a flip of the vinyl, the title track is just absolute magnificence. It is one of the single most fully realized and beautiful pieces of music ever recorded. It never loses its intrigue, its magic or its wonderfullness. It is absolutely blissed out sonic perfection. Point blank, hands down, end of discussion.
'Merlin's Prophecy', with its cymbal heavy 4/4 swing time signature, is the jazziest thing to be found here. Although it becomes something entirely different with the addition of a heavy Hammond B-3 treament. I've long considered it kind of like intermission after the fantastically towering highlight that precedes it and the heavy epilogue that follows it, combined with the deceptively simple riff that dominates it.
Only Axe would close such a gorgeous and profound album with something that starts off as ugly as 'The Mental Traveler' does. It is probably one of the heaviest things he's done, what with the two and half minute Pete Wyant showcase that opens the tune. Probably Wyant's finest recorded moment, he belts out a solo that simply reiterates the tune's head, but, always the fan of dissonance, hits these completely out of place notes that signal to the listener that this tune, indeed, is not what it seems. For the briefest of moments, smack dab in the middle, there is nothing but silence and then Carol Kaye comes back to set the table for Earl Palmer to unleash one of the most underrated Axelrod breakbeats. After marinating in some dizzying chords, Kaye falls back into the groove just in time for the strings and horns to introduce an entirely new theme that is altogether more compelling and just downright sad. The bands lays out and the strings once again ascend into the shrillest of high registers and, just as it began, the whole thing is over. Twisted that, he began and ended with arguably the loudest and most dissonant songs he ever did.
For fun, here are the differing issues of the album....
The original 1968 issue on Capitol. Notice how it's billed as 'Song' of Innocence on both cover and label; and also how Axe's middle initial is credited as part of his name on the label, but not the cover. Gotta love that classic Capitol rainbow label:
Strangely, the album was reissued by Capitol in 1972. The cover and label are different, but the music is the same. I guess the album was doing well when it was first issued in 1968, but the promotions department was told to lay off, because Capitol wanted Axe to be a producer and A&R man as his priority, not a recording artist. Maybe when he finally left the label in 1972, they reissued it as a sort of 'goodbye and thank you' for all the money he made the label over the years. Also, notice how, on this cover the album is billed as 'Songs' of Innocence, back to the singular 'Song' of Innocence on the label. Again, his middle initial is included on the label (classic Capitol orange and black by this point), but not the cover. Also, the photos were then recent. Axe had aged quite a bit in the four years since the album's initial release:
First non-Capitol reissue on the Australian label Ascension, from 2000. They removed the Capitol logos from the original cover and changed the record label entirely:
The original Ascension issue on CD, first ever issue of the album digitally, also from 2000:
I haven't purchased EMI UK's vinyl and CD reissues of the album from 2001, but I've heard that, besides the cover art being exact replications of the original Capitol issues, the mastering is exactly the same as the Ascension versions (which is excellent).
Years have been kind to the album. At the time, it was labeled 'jazz fusion' a year before Miles got there. It received a lot of attention from mind expansion seeking twenty-somethings and gained clout in the 80's from psych collectors. In the 90's, it was sampled by hip hop heads looking for pristine drums and deep emotions. When it was finally reissued for the first time in 2000, it sold more copies then any previous issue ever had. Today, the production may date it, but the actual content still sounds on the cusp of something yet to be discovered.
It is my single favorite album of all time.
After over ten years of it being a part of my life, I've yet to hear anything that surpasses it, not to mention, equals it.
An absolute monument in modern music.