Best song: Changes
Worst song: Leave It
Overall grade: 2
Remember how Yes managed to make Drama a success, despite lacking Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman, by stunningly and effortlessly creating the kind of prog pop that Styx and Kansas could only dream about? Well, three years later they actually have Anderson back, and yet they come nowhere near close to repeating the feat.
Truth is, this was actually the first Yes album I heard, and it nearly put me off listening to the band for life. I’d been advised on the albums by a non-prog fan and so was led to believe that it was some of their best work, yet at the same time I’d heard that they were similar to bands like Pink Floyd and Genesis who I already liked… I listened, and I had no idea how this was similar in any way to those other bands, and I couldn’t get any enjoyment out of it. I shelved the band, and it was a good few months before I was guided towards ‘Close To The Edge’. Later, after being acquainted with the whole of the band’s Seventies catalogue, I returned to this with fresh eyes. I knew I was getting an Eighties pop album rather than a prog album and with that in mind, I thought I might be able to appreciate it. But I couldn’t hear anything that differentiated it from anything else being made at the time. In my opinion, Yes lost their magical songwriting talent somewhere around 1981 and have been trying to get it back ever since, resulting in some near misses like ‘Keys To Ascension’ and ‘Fly From Here’, and some complete flops, like ‘Big Generator’ and this one.
One possible reason for the drop in quality on this album is the departure of Steve Howe; who after over ten years as a permanent fixture of the band was suddenly not invited to join it. That’s right, this was actually an entirely new band, that started off as Chris Squire, Alan White and then-unknown guitarist Trevor Rabin, and just happened to end up including Jon Anderson and pre-Wakeman Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye. As much as I respect Squire as a bassist, I’ve never seen him as the strongest songwriter, and White’s never contributed significantly either, which basically left Anderson alone to carry the group and make them sound vaguely Yes-like, which, after they decided to adopt the name, should have been pretty important.
If I said ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ was my least favourite song here, I’d be being controversial for the sake of it, because there are worse songs. I still can’t stand it, though. I can’t get over the simplicity of it all and the way there aren’t any new layers to uncover with subsequent listens; what you hear is what you get. The band try to add in solos, possibly to appease longtime fans, but they’re uninspired, possibly restricted by the commercial nature of the song.
Its followup ‘Hold On’ is equally uninspired, and it feels like the band don’t realise that it’s possible to be creative and concise, and they have to pick one or the other, because seriously, on paper this song ticks all the boxes of what elements a song should have but it doesn’t do anything more than that and it doesn’t make you feel anything. ‘It Can Happen’ is a slight improvement, made memorable with the addition of the sitar and the less cheesy melody, but still doesn’t exactly break new ground.
‘Changes’ is… well, it’s certainly listenable, even while it never approaches greatness. It brushes aside the shiny, over-polished pop in favour of a rockier sound, and Anderson manages to breathe plenty of emotion into this one: he hasn’t lost any talent, he just doesn’t have as much material to work with here.
Moving into the second side, ‘Cinema’ seems to be an attempt at a prog instrumental, but two minutes doesn’t really give it a chance to develop, and none of the band members are playing their best at this point (Squire hasn’t given us a great bass line this entire album while the others were overloaded with them.) Then ‘Leave It’ was designed as Anderson’s showcase, full of vocal harmonies, but they’re harsh and abrasive to my ears; and I know he’s capable of such beauty. There’s nothing in the background to raise it up, either, and so it becomes my least favourite song on the album because I actually can’t see any merit in it whatsoever: not as a Yes song nor as a pop song.
‘Our Song’ is just so… so eighties, with its keyboards and synths, that seem like something out of a terrible washing powder advert and just manage to overpower the entire song. Then comes ‘City of Love’, and have I mentioned that the lyrics are also terrible here? I’m not saying Yes have ever been well known for great lyrics, but at least they used to be original. Here, they dispense with all originality and go for cringe-inducing: I think the title of this song just about says enough.
‘Hearts’, as a closer, is one of those songs where you spend the whole time waiting for the good bit, as the last thirty seconds are actually pretty cool where the first seven have no focus and nothing special about them. It’s not really enough of a payoff to wait for, in truth. It’s an extended ballad in the grand tradition of ‘And You And I’, but has about as much resemblance to that song as ‘Close To The Edge’ does to ‘Surfin’ Bird’.
Of course, this album is no worse than everything else that was becoming mainstream in 1983; that’s just not my style of music at all, but to an Eighties pop fan this is probably perfectly worthwhile. It’s just not superior to anything else from the time, as it no longer has the unique power of classic Yes albums from the seventies. Perhaps I’m always going to judge it harshly in the shadow of its great predecessors, but I can’t imagine ever listening to this for pleasure.