The Byrds – Younger Than Yesterday

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Total anachronism—for their fourth album, the band consciously try to recreate their first album, but after the envelope-pushing third album, it sounds like a sophomore slump.

Now, I understand why they did what they did from a marketing perspective—despite modern criticism elevating Fifth Dimension as a classic, it was their worst charting album at the time. Now, at first glance, a second Mr. Tambourine Man does sound inviting, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the band has lost a lot between then and now—when Gene Clark packed his ball and went home, he took the band’s harmonic prowess with them. The band managed to sweep that fact under the rug with Fifth Dimension by focussing on the rock and psychedelic parts of their resume, as well as expanding their sound through other instruments (organs, strings). And a lack of harmonies can easily be compensated by strong melodies, but unfortunately, the band are rummaging at the bottom of their bin of melodies.

Furthermore, in addition to being completely disconnected with their own strengths, they’re completely disconnected with the times. 1967 is widely and rightfully regarded as one of the most explosive years in music, especially when it comes to psychedelic music, so lord knows why they would want to give us an album that sounds like it’s from 1965 with a running time (29 minutes! They couldn’t even breach the half-hour mark!) that suggests they’re still living like it’s 1963. Let’s ignore anything British and focus solely on America for a moment because that’s where the Byrds thrived anyway. People who wanted pop music were given other avenues to explore—the Monkees came out of nowhere and hit #1 across the globe with “I’m a Believer” the previous year. People who wanted psychedelic music were given other avenues to explore—Jefferson Airplane released their best album around the same time, while Jimi Hendrix debuted his virtuous guitar playing with his debut single just a couple of months previous. As a result, middle-of-the-road artists like the Byrds were left standing (ahem) in the middle of the road.

“So You Want To Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” is the album’s most realized track. It features whimsical percussion noises (it sounds like the sort that David Bowie would use in “The Man Who Sold the World,” but that’s three years after the fact) in addition to Clarke’s drumming and trumpets too, which had never been seen before on a Byrds album. But these things are just extra (and appreciated) bits of parmesan. The pasta is made up of the song’s rather excellent guitar line and the album’s best vocal melody, not to mention that the harmonies here do a lot more than merely harmonize (as they do later on). But the best part is the lyrics, because by Jove, this thing is inspired—a beautiful critique against the music industry following the success of the Monkees as a result of image first and foremost and music second (“When your hair’s combed right and your pants fit tight / It’s gonna be all right”). Unfortunately, the band add in the recording of a live audience but the problem is that the clapping and cheering is mixed way too loudly and is way too present in the track (coming in halfway in). The result is like listening to a live song where there physically is a loud and obnoxious audience, but those sorts of tracks would be delegated to bootleg status.

After that, they’re back to playing their old tricks, to a mixed result. The good stuff is mostly packed on the first side, “Have You Seen Her Face” and “Renaissance Fair” both have wonderful vocal melodies, but because both tracks aren’t given much room to grow, the melodies therein kind of just pass through one ear and out the other. In particular, “Renaissance Fair” is particularly undercooked—there’s brief counterpoint going on at the 0:20 mark between the vocals, the bass (by Jove, that bass!) and the guitar, but they kind of just say “fuck it” and don’t bother resolving any of the lines after that. And while I do like McGuinn’s jangly intro, I can’t help but feel it was added after the song’s completion to help give it some extra running time. “Everybody’s Been Burned” nicely rounds out the first side, but it reminds me too much of “I Come and Stand At Every Door,” just with more prominent guitar and drumming. I do wish the ending is given more of an “umph” instead of just dying out; there’s literally zero focus given to the haunting line, “So I guess instead I’ll love you.” On the other side of things, “Why” is a more-rocking version of the track with the same name that first appeared as a b-side to “Eight Miles High.” Still good, though.

The rest? “Time Between” is a brief glimpse of what they’d be doing a year from now, and I’d be a lot warmer to it if the previously country-tinged “Mr. Spaceman” from Fifth Dimension didn’t already exist, which did everything “Time Between” does and then some. “Thoughts and Words” is disjointed; Jim McGuinn’s 12-string guitar jangle louder than anything else on the album, but when they completely disappear for the chorus so that the singing can be focussed on, the transition leaves a bitter taste on my mouth. The Bob Dylan cover, “My Back Pages,” which the album title takes after, and so obviously chosen as a single, is okay. I appreciate what they did with his “Mr. Tambourine Man,” turning it into the psychedelic journey its lyrics promised. I appreciate what they did with his “All I Really Want to Do,” turning a whimsical romance number into a standard pop/rock song. “My Back Pages,” frankly, isn’t worth the praise it’s gotten—like their “Chimes of Freedom,” it’s just a safe reading of a Bob Dylan song (with its tempo sped up and with some verses chopped off as all their Dylan covers)—but without the conviction that Bob Dylan sang the original in. They’re just reciting the words off a page instead of living them.

So, so far we have an album with a decent amount of good and a handful of filler, right? That sounds like the typical Byrds album, but unfortunately, Younger Than Yesterday also has their two worst songs in their discography (so far, anyway, and I have zero interest in finding out if there’s worse to be found). “C.T.A. – 102” starts off okay, until a terrible addition of blips and bloops turn the thing to shit. Psychedelic music requires more than just noises, they require interesting noises. Meanwhile, I don’t know how much marijuana he’s consumed since “What’s Happening” and this point in time, but David Crosby is too strung out to sing “Mind’s Garden” with any semblance of melody. At least the band is kind enough to start this off as an a capella number so you can hit skip as soon as you hear his vocals.

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2 responses to “The Byrds – Younger Than Yesterday

  1. Pingback: The Byrds – Turn! Turn! Turn! | Free City Sounds·

  2. Pingback: The Byrds – Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde | Free City Sounds·

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