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Spirits Having Flown
The Bee Gees

RSO 3041
Released: January 1979
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 55
Certified Platinum: 1/30/79

"The record the world's been waiting for," reads an ad for Spirits Having Flown, and that's not just hype, since the Bee Gees' new album represents a deliberate attempt to fashion a "global" pop. Instead of extending the airy pop-disco of Saturday Night Fever, the Brothers Gibb have consolidated several styles, only one of which is disco, to make slower, more elaborate music. Miami Blue-Eyed Soul Meets Europop in Ecumenical Heaven might be an apt subtitle. Though impressively produced, Spirits Having Flown isn't nearly as powerful as the crux of Saturday Night Fever, and its failures suggest that the group's brilliant fusion of adolescent love songs and disco for the 1977 soundtrack LP was at least partly accidental.

From the beginning, the Bee Gees' mating of pop and R&B was shaky. True, the key cuts on the transitional Main Course, for which producer Arif Mardin taught the trio the rhythmic basics, were landmarks. But the following disc, Children of the World, on which the Gibbs and coproducers Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson toughened up the style, was less satisfying. There, the effort seemed forced, and the combination of harder rhythms and a much grainier sound created an abrasively shrill and somewhat cheesy blue-eyed soul that redeemed itself only once, in the poppers-in-the-fun-house smash, "You Should Be Dancing." Coming after this letdown album, the gorgeous and surprising Saturday Night Fever songs (from the same production team) elegantly underlined both the strength and delicacy of the special chemistry. These made-to-order movie tunes had such a magical flow and simplicity that, in one stroke, a universal dance music was born. Not since the heyday of Glenn Miller, forty years earlier, had the dreamy and aggressive impulses of pop meshed so seamlessly to stamp an era.

Bee Gees - Spirits Having Flown
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
On Spirits Having Flown, not a single composition has the ethereal propulsion of "Stayin' Alive," "Night Fever" or "More than a Woman." "Tragedy," the new record's fastest dance number, is a minimelodrama that gallops along on a bed of synthesized lava, with a chorus of bleating seraphs cleaved midway by a thunderbolt. While the gimmickry is clever and the tune irresistible, the whole thing's a bit too self-conscious to take off. The other two danceable cuts -- "Search, Find" (a milder but stirring echo of "You Should Be Dancing") and "Love You Inside Out" -- lack hard-core disco momentum. "Too Much Heaven," Spirits Having Flown's "How Deep Is Your Love," sets one of the group's most glamorous melodies against a cumulus of strings and a ticking Latin beat. Though as delicious as strawberry ice cream, the song misses the aching intimacy of its forerunner, and the message ("Nobody gets too much love anymore") rings like an official proclamation. To strengthen this impression of celestial omnipotence, when the Bee Gees lip-synched "Too Much Heaven" on the recent TV benefit for UNICEF, they were haloed in soft focus like blissed-out angels just back from a meeting with God.

This album's weaknesses are synonymous with the Gibb's pseudodeific, megastar self-conception. Most of the songs are sung with perfect pitch, but the trio's piercing collective falsetto (built around Barry's lead vocals) is so relentless that the few moments in which the voices drop to their natural register come as a relief. The Four Seasons, alas, and not Smokey Robinson are the prototype for such an unearthly style: shrill, stiff, mechanical yowls that generate tension yet aren't expressive enough to carry an entire LP. This metallic shriek was made appealing on Main Course and Saturday Night Fever because it was softened and distanced into a floating, plaintive cry that found a workable counterbalance in a springy, clearly articulated electric bass. John Travolta's moving portrayal of young Tony Manero and his struggle for recognition in the film also lent poignant meaning to the falsetto, which became an aural metaphor for the anxious human spirit: an attestation of innocence, a cry for help, a sob of nostalgia.

Spirits Having Flown's lack of a cinematic subtext also causes problems with the lyrics. The Bee Gees have always taken a rather functional approach to words, basing their choices as much on phonetics as on the literal sense of what's being said, so that many of their lyrics scan like computer distillations of love comics. But with Saturday Night Fever, the real-life movie setting coaxed a more down-to-earth point of view, and the culmination, "Stayin' Alive," deservedly became a worldwide anthem. On the new record, the return to lyrical abstractions, when combined with such insistent falsettos, makes the Gibbs sound (not altogether unintentionally) like three android planetary overseers instead of fellow human beings.

Aside from the album's melodic consistency (nine out of ten tunes have substantial hooks), its major success is in the area of production: the Bee Gees, Galuten and Richardson offer a sugary, futuristic melange of Abba-styled Europop, past-Motown R&B and Miami disco, with greater emphasis on horns and synthesizer. A duet between falsetto voices and a sputtering saxophone over a brass choir in "Stop (Think Again)" demonstrates a particularly haunting use of horns. Throughout Spirits Having Flown, the synthesizer is integrated with far more assurance than before, so that the strongest songs outstrip Abba in sophistication while maintaining the requisite Europop tone of brittle, ultraccessible cordiality. The title track is the producers' piéce de résistance. A mystical ballad that swells like the sea over a synthesized roar as quasi-western movie theme is reiterated by a steel band, "Spirits (Having Flown)" carries international sci-fi/religioso pop to a decorative peak of opulence.

Along with Donna Summer and Abba, the Brothers Gibb are defining the emergent mainstream of space-age pop. The musical equivalent of such Hollywood screen extravaganzas as Star Wars and Superman, this international style giddily exalts a blind faith in technology, flaunting the artificiality while exhorting our wildest childhood fantasies of escape into toyland. The Bee Gees' mythos -- they always wanted to be bigger than the Beatles, whom they originally cloned, and now they are, commercially speaking -- lends their music a messianic ring, albeit a somewhat muted one. We're not only encouraged to play with (or to try to become) futuristic toys, but to accept the Gibbs as heavenly castrati -- Johnny Mathis robot voices come to soothe our hypereroticized climate with musical candy. Yet the falsettos cut two ways: even as they keen like rockers in the chill of space, their squall brings out the crybaby in all of us.

As millennial fever looms, the Bee Gees shrewdly answer our contradictory urges to rush forward ant to retreat. Their soundtrack for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band represented one last pitiful attempt to get back and become the Beatles. On the UNICEF TV special, they finally got away with posing as the Fab Four's spiritual heirs. But the global consciousness that the Gibbs conjure is far different from that of the Beatles, who embodied a non-bureaucratic world community of hippie individualists. The Bee Gees' global village would be a junior high of androgynous, conformist goody-goodies: a world with no violence or sex, only puppy love, and every toy in creation. That's why Spirits Having Flown is a Sunday-school heaven of eternal childhood, stringently regulated by "angels."

- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 4/5/79.

Bonus Reviews!

Let's talk about Chipmunks. No, not the real kind; frankly, I wouldn't know a real one from a squirrel, unless the little vermin actually looked like Disney's Chip and Dale. I mean the recording-star Chipmunks. "Who?" ask our younger readers. Well, it's like this, kids. In the late Fifties (you remember them from Happy Days, of course) a gent named David Seville did a novelty Christmas single in which he sparred verbally with three of the tiny rodents (named Alvin, Simon, and Theodore) who were, in actuality, overdubbed and speeded-up permutations of his own voice. The disc sold by the millions, spawned several successful follow-ups (featuring jazzy instrumental B-sides with titles like "Almost Good" and "Mediocre"), and created an industry. For a while there, it seemed the public just couldn't get enough of the furry trio's close high harmony, so reminiscent of the Four Freshmen on belladonna. Eventually, they even got their own TV show. But Seville died a few years back, and they did a quick fade. Today their memory is kept alive only by the most crazed partisans of pop arcana, the kind of wackos who would kill for a 16-millimeter print of My Mother, The Car, write fanzine articles on Bob Denver, and form punk bands.

I wouldn't bother you with this bit of history, to tell the truth, except I've got Spirits Having Flown, the new Bee Gees album, before me, and it's dawned on me at last: the brothers Gibb are unquestionably the Chipmunks' spiritual heirs. The parallels, in fact, are almost too obvious. They sound utterly inhuman, sing in close high harmony, and sell records by the millions. They're on TV a lot (their own show must be in the cards at this point), have already faded away once, and undoubtedly will again. Their records, including this one, are amusing and utterly dispensable. Hell, they even look like Chipmunks (especially Robin).

I feel constrained to point out, at this juncture, that this isn't the usual rocker's diatribe about the Disco Menace. I like lots of disco records. Donna Summers' "I Feel Love" is great pop, the Stones' "Miss You" is a great Chicago blues, Alicia Bridges' "I Love the Night Life" is a classic r-&-b performance by any standard, and even the Bee Gees' stuff from Saturday Night Fever was inspired and atmospheric city music. True, there are very real dangers and limitations inherent in both the genre and the lifestyle it espouses, but to reject Spirits Having Flown out of hand simply because of The Beat is to miss the point. Face it: Ian Dury's "Wake Up and Make Love to Me" is disco, and he's got certifiable New Wave credentials. So disco is certainly not the issue.

The Bee Gees falsetto is, however, and this is where we get back into Chipmunk territory. There is nothing implicitly wrong with pop falsetto. But contrast Maurice, Barry, and Robin's variety with the two most influential falsettos of the Sixties, Smokey Robinson and Brian Wilson. Smokey was so soulful he could reduce grown men to tears, and Brian could break your heart while he was rhapsodizing over a skateboard. Has even the most wild-eyed lackey of Robert Stigwood ever made a similar claim for the Bee Gees? Consider: what is the sound of a Chipmunk who has been rejected by his girl friend? The same as that of a Chipmunk who is sublimely happy. What is the sound of a Bee Gee whose loved ones have been wiped out in a mining disaster? That's right, folks, the same as that of a Bee Gee with an album that has just shipped platinum.

I don't want to wind up blaming all of society's ills on a trio of expatriates from Australia. Spirits Having Flown is, after all, simply a formula follow-up, albeit an uninspired one, and to criticize the lads for not really having anything to say is unfair; they're not writing for an audience that wants them to say anything. But their staggering level of success with a music that is at heart so antihuman, both conceptually and simply in its sound, is one of the more depressing phenomena of the Seventies. After all, these guys aren't one-shots (on which level they would have been more tolerable, even enjoyable) -- they're a monolith.

Which is to say that any right-thinking individual who spies this album at his or her local record store should ignore it in favor of The Chipmunks' Greatest Hits, a copy of which is certain to be lurking in the bargain bin. Remember -- there's nothing like the real thing.

- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 4/79.

Following up Saturday Night Fever music figured to be no small job, but one did expect, at least, that the Bee Gees would compete with their own past by throwing out some catchy tunes. The kind of music they're dealing in nowadays doesn't absolutely demand them, but they are sure help; the fact that the Bee Gees have a better knack for melody than do the black groups they imitate is a standout fact in their recent success. But catchy tunes are not the rule in the new Spirits Having Flown album. The hit "Too Much Heaven" has one, and "Love You Inside Out" almost has one, but mostly the album has other priorities.

Those don't have much to do with the lyrics, which are as banal as usual; they have mostly to do with arrangements, vocal and instrumental. Barry Gibb holding court in the studio is what the album is about. Even in "Too Much Heaven," which has enough intrinsic charm to make it dressed any which way, Barry has all but gone ape on the layered falsetto sound. In songs that depend on finesse (as most in this batch do), he has provided some cunning effects indeed, especially instrumentally. But listening to it is a shallow experience, even shallower than usual. You can get studio magic and no tunes on almost any Todd Rundgren album; from the Bee Gees one wants tunes. And I, for one, could use a break from those damned falsettos once in a while. I think if Barry had spent half the time writing that he spent tinkering with falsettos, the boys might have had their worthy follow-up to Fever. As it is, the new effort has more production finesse than one can justify on most good pop tunes, short-lived as those are, and on these mediocre ones the elaborate packaging becomes almost ludicrous.

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 4/79.

With the unparalleled success of Saturday Night Fever coupled with the successes of its live album and Children Of The World, the Bee Gees are undoubtedly the reigning champs of contemporary music in terms of sales and airplay. This collection of new studio tunes is perhaps the Gibbs' definitive LP. Charged with burning disco-flavored melodies, those finely honed falsetto vocals and superb harmonies, the Bee Gees are also assisted by some first-rate musicians like guitarist George Terry, Joe Lala on percussion, Herbie Mann on flute, Blue Weaver on piano and the Chicago horn section. The album is a mix of beautiful Bee Gee ballads and cooking upbeat tunes that translate just perfectly on dance floors. The Gibbs' No. 1 single, "Too Much Heaven," should help propel sales, along with the numerous other singles candidates. Best cuts: "Too Much Heaven," "Tragedy," "Love You Inside Out," "Spirits Having Flown."

- Billboard, 1979.

I admire the perverse riskiness of this music, which neglects disco bounce in favor of demented falsetto abstraction, less love-man than newborn-kitten. And I'm genuinely fond of many small moments of madness here, like the way the three separate multitracked voices echo the phrase "living together." But obsessive ornamentation can't transform a curiosity into inhabitable music, and there's not one song here that equals any on the first side of Saturday Night Fiver. B-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Spirits Having Flown is the slick, calculated and vapid follow-up to the Bee Gees' "Fever" success. *

- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

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