The new Spygenius album, “Man On The Sea,” is an expansive (17 song, 79 minute CD / Digital Download, a double album if you get the vinyl version) ride that defies immediate description.
There are a few touchstones that offer a high-level view of the scope and feel of the album. First, it’s a distant cousin to albums like Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” and The Beatles “White Album” in that it combines tightly crafted, conventional pop/rock songs with more adventurous and experimental excursions. And like both albums, you can cherry-pick favorites here and there, but the true experience comes from putting it on and letting it play front-to-back, immersing yourself in the realm intended for you by the band.
I did exactly that, four times to be precise, before writing a word of this review. I spoke with a friend about my initial impressions of the album, particularly the “Tusk” / “White Album” reference I made above, and he came back with a response that sums this one up better than I can…the album is a throwback to the days in which it was “OK to do that.”
Let that sink in for a moment…it becomes a little lightning bolt out of the sky, a time for celebration and sadness all rolled into one. We used to sit back while artists like John, Paul, George and Ringo did whatever their muses called them to do, and when it was time for a new album, we’d eagerly ask “What have you got for us?” It didn’t matter if it came in the form of “Revolver” or the band dressing themselves up as a different, fictional band and making the entire outing a “concept.” We waited, we listened, and whatever came, we took it for what it was, celebrated it, and abstained from picking it apart under the microscope.
Things have changed. Modern “rock journalism” clutches forks and knives, to quote another member of the Fab Four, and does its level best to second-guess, categorize, and ultimately diminish artists who endeavor to simply put out breathtaking works that defy a quick and easy analysis. The quest to define “what it is” completely misses that result by the simple virtue of the process itself. Think back to 1969 and Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica”…what are you gonna say about that one? Can you put it under the microscope and compare it to anything that was being played on the radio at the time? Of course you can’t, and a half-century later, it still defies description, it still rebels against any category you’d like to shoe-horn it into, it still inspires and amazes, and it is still simply what it is.
I felt three distinct tones / flavors / attitudes on this album.
First, imagine John Lennon, circa “Revolver,” emancipated from his band mates and any deciding votes from Sir Paul. Imagine him set free, paired with a group of other musicians less concerned with meeting label demands for a commercial product, less concerned with maintaining an already established identity, and doing whatever the hell he felt like doing.
Then, add a bit of the Ray Davies wistfulness and cynicism.
And top it all off with a layer of Greg Lake, in the setting of ELP that relied more on melody and short songs than on sprawling, bombastic Keith Emerson excess and tracks that filled an entire album side.
If you can take those three elements and stick them in the back of your mind, without using them to draw black and white comparisons, and simply open yourself up for an hour and a half and let the album wash over you, you will enjoy the hell out of it. You’ll feel the adventure, the creative freedom of a band that simply listens to the muse, transcribes what she has to say to them, and heads off to the recording studio to capture the gifts she’s given.
Some of the Big Stir releases are short bursts of rock/pop joy, clocking in at three minutes or so, filled with hooks and bridges and choruses and solos, and that’s an important and essential element of the music we all enjoy. Other projects use that as a starting point and head to the launch pad to see where else they can take things. Certain artists on the Big Stir roster will take you to all of the expected destinations and then hit the booster rockets and take you to new and uncharted realms. Spygenius is in that second category…they can throw down pure pop for now people with the best of them…but there’s more, a LOT more, and if you can just sideline the need for a quick and easy to digest meal of what is expected, you’ll be thrilled with where this album takes you.
Highly recommended, this is an album that will continue revealing itself to you after many listens.