When an artist tells you not to listen to one of their albums, it’s fairly difficult to disobey them. I mean, fellow obscurophiles, there’s nothing we find more pleasing than feeling that the only two people who truly understand the album are ourselves and the artist. With the artist gone, it’s a party of one.
Which leads to this fascinating album by Beefheart and his so-called “tragic” band, the absolute low point of his career according to many, including the man himself. And yet, it’s difficult to understand why. I mean, this, the second of his “mainstream” albums is nothing like its counterpart, Unconditionally Guaranteed, which is a turgid affair, spoilt by muddy playing and a lack of imagination (although This is the Day and Magic Be are still up there with his best).
It’s true that Bluejeans and Moonbeams is something of a slight album. There are only nine tracks, and two of them are unpardonable filler – Captain’s Holiday is a wretched proto-disco stomp that seems to go on forever, and Rock ‘N’ Roll’s Evil Doll isn’t much better, trapped in a chorus that never threatens to do anything musically.
For those who are looking for a way into the album, I’ve got two words for you: Observatory Crest. It’s pretty much perfect, with a shimmering guitar, and wonderfully complex bassline courtesy of Mr. Bob West that dispels any notion these was ham-fisted amateur players.
Pompadour Swamp has its haters, but it’s definitely a grower. “Is he talking to me?” asks Beefheart before a sleepy, quirky bass riff and drunk piano kicks in.
There’s also the epic Further Than We’ve Gone, with a fantastically throaty performance from Our Captain, although it does seem to get a bit lost in the middle. Much better is the JJ Cale cover Same Old Blues – given the scarcity of Van Vliet’s covers, you can be sure that when he does try his hand it’s going to be a beauty.
The album closer, Bluejeans and Moonbeams, is bizarre, and not in that conventional crazy Beefheart way either. On the one hand, it tries its hardest to be a ballad, “I’ve been workin’ I’ve been lovin’/Underneath the moonstone sky” he sings, “I know there’s many things I’ve never seen”. And yet, the instrumentation is completely wrong, with the Moog’s screeching completely overpowering the gorgeous guitar noodling. It’s still a hit, but you get the feeling it could have been much more.
I once heard that Kate Bush was a big fan of this album, which doesn’t really add anything to this review but is still kind of cool when you think about it. I think that history’s been pretty kind to Bluejeans and Moonbeams, and maybe Beefheart’s rejection was an attempt to regain his “cool” in the face of a hostile critical reception. I’d much rather have this album than, e.g. later albums with the “classic” style like Doc at the Radar Station – give me soppiness over fierce literacy any day of the week.