Friday, 27 November 2015

Random Record Review: The Doors - The Soft Parade (1969)

Dismissed by Rolling Stone magazine upon its release as “musical constipation”, The Soft Parade has never had it easy. An inability to take risks and develop musically is surely a greater signifier of musical constipation than the rampant experimentation on display here. Part of the initial animosity towards the LP was based on the fact that five of the nine tracks on offer had already been available on 7”. From a 21st century perspective, where albums are exhaustively mined for hits, this criticism hardly stands up. Robbie Krieger said of The Soft Parade that “we liked it, but no-one else seemed to,” and Morrison bemoaned its lack of a “unified feeling and style”. What do they know! Artists are inevitably too close to their work to gauge its worth without their opinions being tainted by the trials and tribulations of the recording process and the mauling of critics.

The record’s sleeve is striking in its simplicity: a long-shot of the band huddled around a camera which, like the band members’ gazes, focuses squarely on you, the record buyer. Are The Doors scrutinizing their audience, trying to size them up? For much of their career the band had appealed as much to a pop audience as to the acid-dropping hippie revolutionary, so trying to second guess the expectations of such a diverse fan base was all but impossible. What better excuse to give their creativity free rein?

With The Soft Parade, Morrison had finally, explicitly revealed himself to be the counter-culture Sinatra. Always equal parts crooner and blues howler, Morrison’s regard for the Italian-American singer was well established. His suggestion that Sinatra record a cover of You’re Lost Little Girl in the light of his troubled marriage to Mia Farrow fell on deaf ears, but would undoubtedly have been an inspired song choice for Old Blue Eyes.

So, what of the music? For many, the most contentious aspect of The Soft Parade’s sonic tapestry is the introduction of, and heavy reliance on, horns and strings. And certainly, the opening horn blast of Tell All The People must have been a shock to long-term fans. Sinatra’s influence on Morrison is immediately obvious. However, within  the soulful lounge-rock stew is a potent, Robbie Krieger-penned call to arms.

Touch Me, the first single from the LP, is a jazzy, swinging tune with deft organ / drum interplay. Morrison sounds bored, or perhaps just drunk, but there is no denying how infectious the tune is. Shaman’s Blues has a sound that is instantly recognisable as The Doors. The horns have taken the night off, a darker, more intense Morrison is in the vocal booth and Robbie Krieger’s labyrinthine guitar, Ray Manzarek’s carnival organ and John Densmore’s inch perfect jazz drumming combine in a waltz-time concoction that must surely have been a huge influence on The Stranglers' Golden Brown. 

Do It would be as throwaway as many reviews suggest if it were not for the usual telepathic interplay between drums, organ and guitar. Easy Ride is a drunken Benny Hill Show hoedown and not nearly as bad as that description might suggest, whereas Wild Child has that woozy, unsettling, hypnotic, off-kilter rhythm of classic Doors. What am I saying? This is classic Doors. Morrison’s commanding voice is beautifully complemented by Robbie Krieger’s haunting, stoned slide guitar. The horns make their return for Runnin’ Blue in which fiddle and mandolin combine with Krieger’s hillbilly vocal for a love it or loathe it chorus. A middle eight that’s as dark as the chorus is hokey make this a song of contrasts (and so much the better for it.) Wishful Sinful is more wistful than wishful, with a string section lending a melancholy beauty to the piece. Someone in The Doors camp had almost certainly been listening to what Arthur Lee had been doing on Alone Again Or.

The centrepiece of the album is the title track. Clocking in at just shy of nine minutes, it is an unhinged, Morrison-penned album-within-an-album. Following the dreamy Wishful Sinful with The Soft Parade demonstrates just how masterful the track sequencing is on this LP. Only by listening to the album as a whole can it really be appreciated. iTunes cherry picking cannot do it justice. The track starts with a Morrison rant against delusional God-bothering (“you cannot petition the Lord with prayer”), then tumbles into a harpsichord lullaby which in turn morphs into a lysergic funk interlude before reverting to jazzy lullaby mode. The darker side of Morrison returns with some exquisitely obtuse lyrics (“the monk bought lunch”)  beneath which John Densmore’s drums steer proceedings towards a conga and organ groove-fest. Morrison becomes increasingly strident and impassioned over the band’s dirty, swamp-funk backdrop until his multi-tracked vocals, sounding like the bickering voices of a schizophrenic, take the song to its climax: “when all else fails we can whip the horse’s eyes and make them sleep, and cry” intones the Lizard King in gloriously cryptic fashion. What does it mean? Who cares? Would you really rather hear another lyric about how my baby done me wrong? This track is a true nugget, and not of the turkey variety either!

In the context of Janis Joplin’s post-Big Brother recordings and what Arthur Lee was doing in Love, The Soft Parade album makes perfect sense. Sadly, Jim Morrison’s reputation as an incoherent, drunken buffoon probably did more to harm critical perception of The Doors than their most challenging music ever could. Would The Doors’ body of work really have been enriched if this LP had never been made? Absolutely not! It would be much the poorer for its absence.