Saturday, May 2, 2009

Songs of Experience

As the follow-up to a complete and total masterpiece, David Axelrod’s second album followed the first album quickly and with similar themes. Both were inspired by the works of William Blake, both are completely instrumental affairs that showcase a collision of modern classical orchestrations underneath contemporary backbeats inspired by rhythm and blues and rock and roll, which allowed for jazz improvisations to lay atop, all weaving an unprecedented sonic tapestry. Because of that, many people like to consider the albums as two smaller halves of the greater whole.

But I must stop the comparisons.

Sure, it’s easy to see why the albums are compared, but besides the William Blake themes and the approach to the compositions, the two albums are distinct from one another within the very first tracks. Where Song of Innocence started off with the psychedelic confusion of 'Urizen', Songs of Experience introduces itself with the triumphant bounce of 'The Poison Tree.' The first half of the song is a strings and vibes heaven of prettiness until just over a minute in and the entire thing explodes into a fiddle feature. After that short interlude, the song morphs into a slower, more reflective theme that is quite representative of the rest of the album.

Where Song of Innocence was either all out trippy dissonance or sudden, exploding jubilation, Songs of Experience is a much more restrained, introspective labyrinth of sounds that is decidedly more elegantly European in its approach and ultimately, despite countless gorgeous moments, a much darker affair.

To follow the dual-faced opener, the slowly paced and slowly unfolding 'A Little Girl Lost' is one of my favorite songs on the album. Its soft vibraphone and harpsichord iterations that morph into a full string reiteration of the melancholy theme is ear candy of the purest and sweetest type.

Up next is one of Axe’s oft-compiled breakbeat-heavy gems, 'London.' Don Randi and Earl Palmer, with numerous heavy open drum and organ breaks, steal the show. The song itself is pure excitement, never once repeating itself or stopping to take in the scenery. Many tuneful blasts and big crescendos into the tune and it ends in a completely different place than it starts. This song lays the thematic foundation from which Axe would build his next album.

I always used to look forward to being able to flip the record, as my back-to-back favorite songs kick off side two of the album, but I was never in a hurry to get there, because 'The Sick Rose' is one of the album’s highlights as well. Imagine my delight, hearing Songs of Experience on CD for the first time and having this incredibly coherent and strong three song centerpiece smack dab in the middle of the album. Talk about brilliant consistency and having a grasp on album sequencing. More than anything else on this album, 'The Sick Rose,' 'The School Boy' and 'The Human Abstract' form the core of the argument for Experience being the superior work of Axe’s Capitol output.

And looking at how 'The Sick Rose' develops from a sparse, eerie, brass-laced slow burn into a lazy, vibe-heavy, near hallucinatory flow of a song, it makes sense that it sets the table for such a calm and transcendent group of quietly revelatory songs. When 'The Sick Rose' finally fades out amidst a relaxing swirl of strings and an outstanding trumpet solo, it will hardly prepare you for the emotional heights forthcoming.

A turn of the record and you will hear nearly a minute of nothing but a twelve string and an acoustic guitar trading phrases over the top of subtle piano harmony. Of anything here, 'The School Boy' sounds most like it could have been a holdover from Song of Innocence. It plays the same role that 'A Dream' fulfilled on that album, as it is pure sparsely lush meditative consonance that calmly sets the table for the album’s highlight.

'The Human Abstract' is so good, trying to assess it through critical analysis feels utterly pointless. It is all restrained emotion and perfectly captured ambience. Whether it’s Don Randi’s sympathetic piano line, Earl Palmer’s steady but kinetic drumming, Carol Kaye’s enigmatic and challenging electric bass or the simply epic guitar solo, the entire thing is wonderfully and flawlessly played. It is David Axelrod’s finest achievement as a composer and an artist and the best song I’ve ever heard.

If 'The Human Abstract' is a passionately longing piece of romanticism, its successor on the album is a darkly scheming piece of conceptualism. 'The Fly,' while being arguably the album’s catchiest piece, is a bleak strings and harpsichord feature. It feels nearly like a sinister cynic as the follower to 'The Human Abstract.' Twisted and dramatic.

If this album, overall, is darkly romantic, then its closing song is just plain dark and, at times, downright frightening. 'A Divine Image,' full of atonal horn blasts and spooky keyboards, is just about as intimidating as its title's incidence implies. Although it takes him nearly a minute to appear, Earl Palmer dominates the track with a constantly shuffling and evolving 4/4 backbeat that opens up to great sample fame on more than a few occasions. The song seems to represent the dark side of psychedelia and is a magnificent closing tune. It's never been a favorite song of mine, but its placing at the end of the album's sequence is impeccable, and perfectly complimentary.

Although I am no longer in possession of an original vinyl issue of the album, the official vinyl reissue from the early 2000s is, except for the glossy card stock, faithful to the original 1969 gatefold issue on Capitol. I don't think you can read it in these grainy photos (sorry, taking photos at night with little knowledge of digital camera ins and outs), but the album is billed as 'an anthology of awareness after birth' on the inner cover. Hip. Love that Capitol green and purple label as well:

When the album was issued for the first time on CD, again by the Australian label Ascension, they changed the layout of the back of the album artwork, perhaps to be able to list the songs. Consequently, the famous collage of 'David wrapped in paper' photos does not appear anywhere on this issue:

This isn't like their issue of Song of Innocence on CD, where they basically kept the back cover artwork layout the same as the LP:

Perhaps it would be easiest to liken David Axelrod's first two albums to the years in which they were released: 1968 America was still awash in hippie idealism and good vibes leftover from the summer of love, while by 1969, the hangover and the aftermath began to set in. Reality kicked in and, with it, a lot of the idealism took a hike. As if the two were unable to occupy the same space at the same time.

Songs of Experience would be considered David Axelrod's 'weird difficult' album had he not made its follow up. But since he did, it can now be assessed as a transitional album, catching the artist between two distinct and provocative milestones. As such, Experience has a lot to offer fans of both Song of Innocence and Earth Rot, and on most days if you asked an Axelrod fan their favorite album, they'd probably say this one. However, it is too dark, too cynical for its own good. Like the William Blake works that inspired it, it is bittersweet and brutally honest, perhaps to a fault. While not the complete, fully realized apex that Innocence was, it stretches to the limits of David Axelrod exploring his symphonic, neo-classical jazz rock fusion.

When I first heard this album, I didn't like it. I dug 'The School Boy' and 'The Human Abstract,' but the rest of the album's overwhelmingly downtrodden and sluggish mood was not really my cup of tea. 'London' was too impenetrable for me and the rest of the album was either too slow or too sad for my liking. Time has been kinder to the album than my initial thoughts, but ultimately, I do feel like it is kind of a scattered mess. Of course it's top notch material from my favorite musician at arguably his peak, but Innocence had set the bar impossibly high for a follow-up to be able to top it.

Is it a good album? Yes, undoubtedly, without hesitation, it is another stone cold classic from Axe's glory years. Then why the extra criticism? Well, because it is a transitional album and there are little seeds all over the record, looking backwards and previewing what was to come; yet none of these are as good of what they are referencing. These songs seem to imply a hefty and deep unsureness, but are all played pristine, with even the atonal moments feeling completely and exactly calculated. Maybe it was Axe's heavier reliance on vibes to set the mood, maybe it was guitarist Pete Wyant's uncanny sense of dissonance that was missing; who knows. But these songs, at times, feel purposely incomplete.

If he had made another album in this idiom, it would have inevitably failed. Because when something is taken to the extreme it is taken on this album, there is nowhere else to go except backwards.

To truly go forward and make something entirely unique, even from this album, he would abandon just about every distinguishable characteristic that he had established about himself.


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