Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Martyrs to Melodrama, Lions in Winter: Bee Gees- Trafalgar (1971)
A startling percentage of people tragically have no concept of the existence of the Bee Gees prior to the emergence of their over-played and oft-(unfairly, perhaps)maligned disco period-- but make no mistake: the Bee Gees were towering princes of pop music long before disco was even a thing. How this revision to history occurred is beyond me-- for a time in the 60s, the Bee Gees were one of the most well-known talents in the world (if not so much America), jockeying with even the Beatles as top dogs on the charts and in sales. To my mind, they are one of the strangest and most wonderful pop acts in history, blending harmonies like the bleating of three brother sheep, high melodrama, twee/baroque historical references, and an oddly singular yet unpredictable sense of sheer creativity.
If all this is news to you, I recommend starting with The Bee Gees First, their full-length debut. Marvelously conceived (with a consistency that would be surprising-- if they hadn't been honing their craft since childhood as an extremely popular Australian brother act), the songwriting, paired with esoteric imagery and allusions, and gallons and gallons of mellotron, gives mid-period Beatles a run for their money, or at least an analogue. It's a genius album, and two of the songs were such good white soul, Nina Simone covered them... which I would have considered the highest compliment. I bet they blushed.
Your next stop should be Odessa, a sprawling double album that finds the band operating brilliantly even as they splinter from within, quarreling like brothers. Lush orchestration, deep-digging cellos, powerfully strummed acoustic guitars, inventive harmonies, impenetrable lyrics, sweeping melodrama, and quirky little song sketches with bizarre flourishes all coalescing into a great, underappreciated masterpiece. Odessa is one of The Great Albums.
Which brings us to Trafalgar. Not a great entry point to the genius of the Brothers Gibb, it's nonetheless a wonderful record worth attention. Not as layered as their prime work, and undeniably sentimental (as they always were, really, even at their best), and not too varied in the types of songs-- nearly each song is a dramatic mid-tempo ballad, some sweeping, some tragic. Fortunately, nearly all of them are awesome, if occasionally a bit in spite of themselves, and very very soulful in the most lily-white of ways. Loving the Bee Gees means being okay with smiling at the bombast and rank sentimentality, while simultaneously getting off to it, knowing that if they really mean it (and they do), you can throw them a bone and really feel it, at least a little.
This is the Bee Gees in their comfort zone: each song deals with sorrow, defeat, and struggle, with Robin Gibb sounding, as he always does, as if he's singing from the very depths of despair and pain, a voice simultaneously small and sad and surprisingly large and strong and choked and tremulous and mournful and soulful-- a strange and wonderful instrument indeed. Ridiculous as he is at times, I call him, without reservation, one of the great singers.
One song in particular is a minor shock, and a revelation: "Lion in Winter," set to a minimal, clumsy drum beat and acoustic guitar, sports a falsetto vocal on the chorus so wild and jarring it has to be heard. Listen to him sing this song: he fucking is believing in whatever it is he's saying, so hard. And that is the true pleasure of the Gibbs. True earnestness, even if it's embarrassing. They have no choice, this is what they have to do, their beliefs have brought them here, and they will martyr themselves for this cause.
Another standout is "Israel," a ridiculous, overwrought love song to the titular state. And the usual esoteric references to baroque European subject matter is represented on this album in the stellar "Walking Back to Waterloo" and "Trafalgar." The monster hit, of course, is "How Do You Mend A Broken Heart," and it's exactly an early Bee Gees hit: grand sentimentality out the fucking wazoo, delivered quiveringly by Robin, who sounds like the look in the watery eyes of an abused dog, seeking love.
The Bee Gees are so awesome. Do not doubt this.