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Will o' the Wisp
Leon Russell

Shelter 2138
Released: April 1975
Chart Peak: #30
Weeks Charted: 40
Certified Gold: 3/9/76

Leon RussellI suspect that the title of Leon Russell's fine new album refers to the experience of pop stardom and the lessons, many of them painful, Russell has absorbed in the process of attempting to sustain his self-created myth. For the role Russell has portrayed over the past several years, that of a glamorous, reclusive Renaissance man of pop, has lately seemed larger than the man playing it. His efforts at expanding his repertoire beyond pop and rock to encompass first country and then jazz have proven respectively mediocre and inept, while his two-year-old live album seemed excessively long and showed Russell desperately parodying his own imitation of black gospel vocal style.

The memory of the pop consumer is short. Only three years ago, Leon Russell released his near masterpiece, Carney. An album that both defined and enshrined Russell's self-portrait with astonishing artfulness, Carney cohered as an understated, completely convincing statement from a man obsessed and confused by the roles that pop stardom demanded and suggested. It was at once monumentally egotistical and romantically agonized in its promotion of the age-old "lonely at the top" scenario. With Carney Russell definitively cinched his superstar status, securing an artistic autonomy he would subsequently squander in choices that seemed extremely self-destructive.

Leon Russell - Will o' the Wisp
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Happily, Will o' the Wisp represents Russell's most substantial achievement since Carney. Its ten songs are all well made, and the Russell/Denny Cordell production is the most imaginative to be found on any Russell album. While no one song quite matches the eloquence of "A Song for You" and "This Masquerade" from earlier albums, Will o' the Wisp expresses a unity of purpose in its spirit of dedication to one woman, Mary McCreary, who sings elaborately overdubbed back-ups on several of the tunes and lead on one; and just as significantly, a rededication to the basic spirit of rock & roll.

For the first time since Carney, Russell applies his exploratory restlessness not to forms outside of rock but to the technical possibilities within the rock context afforded by a 40-track tape machine and the use of synthesizer as an important supplementary rock instrument. The outer limits of these possibilities begin to become most apparent on three exotic studio "production numbers" -- "Little Hideaway," "Can't Get Over Losing You" and "Back to the Island." "Little Hideaway," which celebrates two lovers' idyllic retreat, apotheosizes McCreary's extraordinary voice (sassy, soulful and highly flexible) by turning it into a huge choir, while Russell runs exciting arpeggios on the synthesizer, treating the instrument as a sort of electric harpsichord. "Can't Get Over Losing You" opens with bizarre instrumentation, most notably Minoru Muraoka playing a Japanese wooden flute, then segues into a classic rockabilly format led by J.J. Cale on electric guitars, while McCreary is again overdubbed into a weird off-harmony chorus of lamentation. "Back to the Island," another joyous escape song, is tricked out with oceanic sound effects. The cut works in the way intended -- as a piece of delightful fantasia.

With few exceptions, Russell's new songs appear to be inspired by his creative relationship with McCreary. Among those that are not, the most touching and personal is "My Father's Shoes," a gospel-styled hymn in which Russell meditates on the continuity of the father/son relationship, regretting the difficulty of being able to express directly both paternal and filial love:

And now I think of my daddy
He bought these kind of shoes
And after all this time
I think I know him
I'd like to say I love him
But the time has passed away

Equally strong is "Bluebird," a song whose powerful melody and vigorous performances paradoxically celebrate a state of complete emotional desolation. It's reassuring to hear that Russell can still belt out the cosmic blues with the best of them. The album closes with two intimate love songs. For "Laying Right Here in Heaven," which is touched with reggae, McCreary and Russell sing the very sexy lyrics as call and response. "Lady Blue," the lovely tune that ends the album, is a simple love song of total devotion: "I love you more and more and more/Lady blue." Here, Russell's vocal is remarkably unmannered and Jim Horn delivers a subtle alto sax solo.

Though Will o' the Wisp does not pretend to the intellectual level of Carney, it is warmer and more enjoyable. The arrogance, facetiousness and just plain sloppiness that have flawed Russell's post-Carney albums are hardly apparent. For a change, Russell's vocal mannerisms work for him instead of against him. To define the difference between affectation and a spontaneously felt personal style in Russell's singing is difficult. I suppose it simply comes down to one's intuiting how involved Russell is with his material. To may ears, he sounds very much involved on this album. Being the studio Pygmalion to McCreary's choir of angels has inspired Russell to find appropriately "perfect" sound settings that would enhance the beauty of his creation: an eccentric proposition that fortunately does not go over the line into craziness. The reason it doesn't is that Russell's songs remain firmly rooted in rock and pop tradition. Moreover, while Russell has only begun to explore the capabilities of synthesizer, he has resisted the temptation to indulge in experimentation for its own sake. Which is why Will o' the Wisp is such an encouraging album. Adventurous but disciplined, it goes a long way toward re-establishing Russell's artistic credibility and marks him as a pop innovator who cannot be counted out.

- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 6-19-75.

Bonus Reviews!

Leon Russell has given me a lot of fun through the years, most of it nasty, malicious fun at his expense, but still fun. Certain friends and I would feel culturally deprived if we couldn't use Leon's "uh-hey" from "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms" as a formal greeting, or if we couldn't quote Leon (in something from that horrible live album) when inquiring whether certain sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and other sensations "make you want to go Woo Woo." This album has some funny stuff in it, though, that may not have been 100 per cent unintentional. I wouldn't put it past Leon to have planned it so those Japanese instruments in "Can't Get Over Losing You" sound just slightly like something cooked up by the Monty Python bunch. The reason I suspect that may be tied to the fact that at last Leon has again shown some craftiness in his songwriting. I always thought "Delta Lady" was no fluke, but I surely didn't have the evidence to back up such a wild idea. Here, at last, is some. "My Father's Shoes" may catch your head first; and then you'll notice, incredulously, that "Back to the Island" becomes increasingly pleasant as Russell shovels the clichés into it; and then along comes "Deep River," which is just a rinking-tinking dandy. Russell's voice, of course, is still not a work of art, or even of very good engineering, but it's kind of a friendly voice, for all its posturing. And one of the better features of this album is how disciplined he seems to be with the instrumentals. There are some familiar excesses in "Little Hideaway," but once the thing hits its stride it doesn't break it I was impressed in listening to Russell's country album by how well musicians play behind him -- he must be treating them well, communicating with them -- and I'm impressed by that again. What I'm saving, Leon ol' buddy, is "uh-hey, this'n almost makes me want to go Woo Woo.

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 8/75.

Hard to imagine Leon Russell doing a "comeback" LP, but after the rather disappointing showing he made with his last effort this is just about what this amounts to. And he does remarkably well, with the vocals moving back toward the drawling, bluesy style most fans prefer but at the same time showing a sophistication he never displayed before. The same may be said for the songs, which are ballads or mid-tempo for the most part, though there is some fine blues rocking. Basically, the material here is what makes the set exceptional, including several cuts that rival the intensity of his brilliant "Song For You." There's lots of help from Mary McCreary on backup vocals and some fine Memphis musicians. Key here, however, is that Russell seems to have taken himself seriously and the LP shows just how good he can be when the effort is there. Like Willie Nelson, he can write with the best when he tries. This time he's trying. Best cuts: "Make You Feel Good," "Stay Away From Sad Songs," "Back To The Island," "Bluebird," "Lady Blue."

- Billboard, 1975.

 Reader's Comments

Jody Roy Parker

I think this is Leon's best album. Not a masterpiece, but some of the work on this album is absolutely genius!

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