Saturday, February 20, 2010
Dawn of light lying between a silence and sold sources,
Chased amid fusions of wonder, in moments hardly seen forgotten
Coloured in pastures of chance dancing leaves cast spells of challenge,
Amused but real in thought, we fled from the sea whole.
Dawn of thought transfered through moments of days undersearching earth
Revealing corridors of time provoking memories, disjointed but with
Craving penetrations offer links with the self instructor's sharp
and tender love as we took to the air, a picture of distance.
Dawn of our power we amuse redescending as fast as misused
Expression, as only to teach love as to reveal passion chasing
Late into corners, and we danced from the ocean.
Dawn of love sent within us colours of awakening among the many
Won't to follow, only tunes of a different age, as the links span
Our endless caresses for the freedom of life everlasting.
Thus begins one of, if no the most, ambitious rock albums ever recorded, Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes, their sixth studio album, originally released at the very end of 1973, over 36 years ago. It's easy to read those opening lines, which are sung as a chant over what feels like a sonic acceleration, as pure gibberish, which is the easy way to open the door to how many critics panned this record (as well as much of the band's work during that period). In fact, Tales is often cited as one of the great excesses of progressive rock, which ultimately helped give birth to the backlash in the mid-70's which came to be known as punk.
I'm hear to tell you that this record is a masterpiece. The key to its genius is compositional sophistication, at a level that is almost never heard in rock. A casual listen can get the impression that the band is involved in nothing more than "psychedelic doodling," as the critic from Rolling Stone charged in the original record review there. But repeated listening reveals a brilliant use of repeated motifs, both thematic and melodic, often subtly embedded in seemingly disjointed sections, which often tie the whole thing together quite brilliantly. A melodic line is repeated later as a bass line. A guitar lick in one movement quotes a section from another, or even a previous Yes composition entirely. With the exception of the third movement ("The Ancient," better known to the aficionados simply as "Side Three"), which is a more open composition designed for more improvisation (and yes, noodling), the four parts, each spreading across one side of the original vinyl 2 LP set, are symphonic in their musical intentions.
As for the lyrics, the initial chant quoted above is a good example of what you're in for. It's important to know that Yes lyrics are often more about the sound and timbre of the words themselves- just another voice, along with the instruments, to paint a musical picture, than they are about meaning. The opening bit? You get that it's dawn, right? That's pretty much all you really need to conjure a beginning.
Yes, there is a large concept to the record... inspired by the teachings of an Indian Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, and wrapped around a reference to four Shastric scriptures referenced in a footnote in his famous book, Autobiography of a Yogi. But the concept is very loose, and the four sections are more generally referencing the much wider ideals of Truth, Knowledge, Culture, and Freedom (in that order). You can find references to these conceits if you really search for them in the lyrics, but the beauty of both the bigger concept and the specific lyrics is that they can be widely interpreted to fit the needs (and current emotional state) of the listener.
For example, I've often seen the entire work as a metaphor to a great journey. The first side represents the departure, with the energy and excitement of new discovery along with the foundation of what you think you know. The second side represents a longing for home, conjuring memories of your own life, unlocking intense emotions. The third side is the journey to deep space, or parts unknown, which conjures thoughts of our ancestors and the ancient past. And the fourth side brings you back home, with the freedom that comes from greater understanding.
But I almost never listen to the entire work all the way through, and each movement and its lyrics have meant very different things to me at different times through the years. That, my friends, is what distinguishes good art from great art.
And yes, that's me, right around 1974...
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Veronica asks how I define shlock? In music, perhaps the most succinct way would be to point to the infamous Phil Spector overdubbing of "The Long and Winding Road" from Let It Be. That overwrought orchestral arrangement can easily stand as my definition of shlock.