Thursday, October 10, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 558: Supertramp

Another crazy day with too much to do and too little time.  If you’re also feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of life’s demands, here’s a review to let you know that forty years ago people felt exactly the same way.

Disc 558 is…. Crime of the Century
Artist: Supertramp

Year of Release: 1974

What’s up with the Cover?  What happens when you commit the crime of the century?  According to this cover you’re not only put in jail, you’re put in an extradimensional prison located in the depths of space!  Who could be capable of a crime so heinous that it would warrant such a punishment?  Read the review and find out.

How I Came To Know It:  I’ve known the hits off this record since I heard them on AM radio as a child.  In terms of actually owning the album, I got this one from my friend Gord when he liquidated his CD collection last year.  Thanks, Gord!

How It Stacks Up:  We have three Supertramp albums.  Of the three, I’d put “Crime of the Century” second, just a step behind “Breakfast in America” but in front of "Even in the Quietest Moments."

Rating:  4 stars

Some albums are perfectly of their time, and “Crime of the Century” is one of those records.  This album speaks strongly to 1974.  The decade of youthful disillusionment was settling in for a long stay, as the optimism of the sixties faded away in the face of stagflation and lost opportunity.

Into this gap stepped Supertramp with their third studio album, putting a voice to a generation that was ready to embrace the absurdity of modern life.  The musical style they chose for “Crime of the Century” was a sort of progressive pop, mixing horns, guitar riffs and the tinkling of piano into a sound that was very innovative for its time.

For the most part I admire the result, although some of the longer songs drag in places, descending into piano solos that shift about too aimlessly for my tastes.  These are still well crafted, even if they’re not entirely to my tastes.  In many ways the band had me thinking of Jethro Tull a few years earlier, except replacing the role of the flute with piano.

It all comes together beautifully with “Bloody Well Right” which was seized on as an anthem at the time and was an early memory for me.  Even though I was very young and the delivery system was AM radio, I can still remember hearing this song as the car drove by the pulp mill that fueled the economy of my home town and knowing something important was going on.  Or maybe I just liked the beat.

Either way, as an adult I recognize “Bloody Well Right” as one of rock’s great songs of rebellion.  Holding to the spirit of 1974, it is an anthem that offers up some unpleasant observations –

“So you think your schooling’s phoney
I guess it’s hard not to agree
You say it all depends on money
And who is in your family tree.”

- But doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions.  Instead it just tells you you’re right to be unhappy about the unfairness of it all, and that you have the right to say so, but beyond that there isn’t much solace for the situation.

The song is thematically bookended by the album’s other big hit, “Dreamer” which feels like an indictment of the hippie generation and its notions of utopia and free love.  Instead we’re reminded that dreamers can’t put their hands in their heads and shape their dreams into reality (oh, no!). They’re stuck in the same world as the rest of us, making do.

Later in the record “Asylum” plays with notions of sanity in the increasing moral uncertainty of the age.  The song has an unhealthy mania to it, even as the singer pleads not to be sent to the asylum, claiming:

“I’m just as sane as anyone.
It’s just a game I play for fun – for fun.”

I love the rising, orchestral nature of this song, as it slowly builds, only to fall back into a simple piano melody in the middle that Elton John would be proud of.

I found some of the songs felt a bit too much like show tunes.  In particular, “Hide In Your Shell” which is overly maudlin, and easy listening and “Rudy” which is frantic and changes pace too often, even for progressive music.

The album’s final song is the title track, and ties a nice little bow on the album with a few choice words, delivered with an oppressive finality:

“Now they’re planning the crime of the century
Well what will it be?
Read all about their schemes and adventuring
It’s well worth the fee
So roll up and see
How they rape the universe
How they’ve gone from bad to worse
Who are these men of lust, greed and glory?
Rip off their masks and let’s see
But that’s not right – oh no, what’s the story?
There’s you and there’s me
That can’t be right!”

Lyrically and musically, it feels like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” fifteen years early.  Who committed the crime of the century?  We did of course.

“Crime of the Century” is a deeply cynical album, but it is what the age called for, and Supertramp delivered.  When I began listening to it I was certain I’d give it only three stars.  Yet as I finish this review I’m just about through my third listen, and its genius is speaking to me more than its flaws, so I’m upgrading to four stars.

Best tracks:   School, Bloody Well Right, Asylum, Crime of the Century

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