Friday, 4 March 2016

Fifth Dimension - The Byrds - album review

I recently listened to Fifth Dimension, the third album by The Byrds, released in 1966. When the Byrds back catalogue was remastered and re-issued back in the 1990s, I remember thinking that this album was very patchy.  Would the passage of time have altered my opinion of it?

Whether or not Fifth Dimension is the first proper psychedelic album is neither here nor there. For several reasons, it has a different feel to the two Byrds records which had preceded it. The warmth of the folk ambience has gone, to be replaced by something more brittle and disjointed. There is no lack of ideas per se, but musical inspiration and substantial songcraft are in short supply.

The absence of Gene Clark from the majority of the album is keenly felt. The emotional depth of his songwriting, not to mention the authority and personality contained in his vocals. This, together with the decision not to include Bob Dylan covers, left the band's resources exposed. The creative onus was therefore largely on Jim/Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, Chris Hillman having yet to emerge as a songwriting force. The philosophical raw material was certainly present, but the musical content did not match up to it.

Many reviews of this album describe it as "uneven".  I don't fully share this assessment. If anything, it is flat and uninspired rather than uneven.  In purely melodic terms, some of the songs sound like they could have been rejected for inclusion on the first two albums (the "title" track, perhaps, and "John Riley").

For all these misgivings, the vocal harmonies and the chiming 12-string Rickenbacker guitar are always a joy to behold, even if these ingredients are less pervasive here.  The songs explore a wide range of interesting and often challenging subject matter. Ambitious, if not thematically consistent.

A track such as "Mr Spaceman", though somewhat lightweight, comes as light relief. It reflects McGuinn's fascination in areas such as space, science-fiction and aviation. Stylistically it illustrates the band's growing interest in country music, a direction which would continue to burgeon.

The two most overtly "psychedelic" numbers are "I See You" and "What's Happening". The former in particular presages the kind of material which would characterize "Younger Than Yesterday" the following year. "What's Happening" is quintessential Crosby, and it works well here, as it doesn't draw undue attention to itself.

Arguably the centerpiece of the set is "Eight Miles High".  However revolutionary it may have seemed in the mid-60s, today it feels less markedly awe-inspiring. As with other pieces, it feels like in trying desperately hard to be "cool", the Byrds risk sounding uncommitted, anaemic and detached.

"Hey Joe" is energetic, but ultimately must be seen as filler.  The same tags apply to the instrumental item "Captain Soul". "John Riley" is very crisply performed and pretty to the ears, and the strings are judiciously used, but it's nothing out of the ordinary.

2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song) adds some novelty as a closer. I like the guitar riff, too.

To the uninitiated, Fifth Dimension might sound like a compilation of out-takes, curiosities and left-overs. It is an album which is more important "culturally" than its musical and artistic substance truly merits. An experimental pivot between two periods in the development of The Byrds.  They are to be praised for expanding their horizons, but the results are mixed. Few would have guessed that the next two albums to be recorded by the band would be their best.

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