Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Collaborative Potential Behind Yes' "Heaven and Earth"

The secret to Yes’ longevity is not merely their penchant for lineup changes, but also the band’s willingness to incorporate new talent. Historically, Yes members have rarely (but sometimes) been treated like talking heads. A change in personnel was expected to change the band’s sound. Whether these various changes are positive or negative is the topic of constant debate amongst Yes’ fan base. At the very least, Yes’ fluid identity and inclusive ideology has kept them interesting, if not consistent, for well on 45 years.

Jon Anderson’s departure from the group has been the divisive issue in recent times. Clearly, Anderson’s voice lies at the very foundation of the Yes sound, but in his later years with the group, he seemed to grow increasingly unfocused. I think that if the Yes name was to go on, a change was bound to occur. Granted, installing a new lead singer is a delicate process, but by and large is it possible for a band to survive and even progress once they make it through the procedure.

As I stated in a previous post, I cautiously came to accept current singer Jon Davison. I am now a pretty staunch advocate. In both voice and philosophy, Davison is Anderson’s heir apparent. His presence became more interesting as information about Heaven and Earth began to leak, because he was emerging as proactive contributor to the band’s creative process. He traveled quite extensively to collaborate with the various members of the band, and his writing credits are all over the Heaven and Earth. The album would be the first from Yes in over a decade that would feature entirely new material – no re-visits to unrecorded tracks or other such insecure practices.

In the YesYears documentary, Bill Bruford described the internal politics of Yes as “democratic,” with sometimes exhaustive debate and collaboration. By 1978’s Tormato, however, this approach seemed to run itself dry. Since then, Yes has worked best with a clear conjurer in their midst to focus the band’s creativity. Initially, this role was filled by Trevor Horn, then by Trevor Rabin, then later by Billy Sherwood. I had high hopes that Davison might be able to similarly reinvigorate Yes on Heaven and Earth.

But way before the album’s release, the early reviews started trickling in, and the naysayers took the lead.  I will not repeat this somewhat shortsighted negativity, but by and large, surprisingly little criticism centered on Davison’s performance or even his material. Yes fans were more concerned about the overall relaxed feel and pop sensibilities of Heaven and Earth, despite the fact that the band has dabbled in accessible songwriting since their inception.

Personally, I like the album. First and foremost, it sounds like Yes. Drop the needle nearly anywhere on Heaven and Earth and its bright ambience recalls other great Yes works like Going for the One and The Ladder. Additionally, songs are generally memorable and harmonically interesting, with lyrics that are the usual balance of profundity and cliché that can be found in Yes’ text throughout the band’s history.

But I have some reservations. While I think that there is enough outstanding material to make Heaven and Earth a great album, there are also some hokey, underdeveloped parts that come off as dispassionate. It feels like there is quite a bit of unrealized potential that could have been brought out with a little more cross-collaboration and editing. Here is where I think Davison was, to a degree, hung out to dry. Despite what seemed to be his intention to recreate the collaborative environment of the classic Yes period, the writing credits hardly cross over. He ended up writing separate songs with separate people, which, I speculate, were recorded with relatively little reflection once Yes convened in the studio.

Still, although Heaven and Earth may not be the pinnacle of Yes’ recorded output, it is still a very good album with lots of details hidden in the effortless virtuosity of the band’s veterans. As the newest member, Davison clearly has a passion and enthusiasm for Yes music, and I genuinely think he has a great Yes album in him. With the band’s eldest members comfortably residing on the four corners of the globe working at a distance, however, coming up with new material that stands alongside their best work might be difficult.  My dark side secretly wishes that Davison could just get all those old guys out of the way so that he could make some Yes music.

That’s right, I said it. More on this topic shortly….

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