CD Review: Justin Hayward, “Spirits Of The Western Sky”

SOTWSI think we need to face the fact that there isn’t going to be a full-scale Moody Blues reunion in the studio, certainly not on new material. They still make the touring rounds, at least in part (Justin Hayward, John Lodge and Graeme Edge — no Ray Thomas). What this means is that when you approach Justin Hayward’s Spirits Of The Western Sky, you need to do so with lowered expectations not based upon a quality level but on the order that this isn’t going to be a Moody Blues record. In terms of that quality level, Hayward has always possessed a great ear for melody and has one of those blessed voices that, many decades on and a lot like Steve Winwood, shows little to no signs of time’s tolls. The ride you go on with this recording is mostly a pleasant one, excepting the afterthought that is the EDM version (in two mixes) of “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere,” brought here as “Out There, Somewhere.” The less said about that, the better and so let’s forget it exists from here on out.

Spirits Of The Western Sky is not the full-on bluegrass album people were worried about, and even during the Moodies the sounds of pedal steel and twang found their way into the work as did almost everything else. People fearing a complete tonal shift should not get too worked up by what they find. Hayward does hit those Americanized “R” (sounding like: arrr!) sounds a little harrrrd, but even at that I was pleasantly surprised by the disc. But therein lies a problem. I never quite moved from pleasant surprise to that moment where I thought this was the record I had been waiting for for so long. I think I know why.

There is a well-balanced match that existed between the Moodies. Hayward had the romantic, melancholy side nailed down; John Lodge brought a rocker or two; Thomas and Egde brought social conscience and a bit of Celtic folk into it (which really is influenced by the presence of flute), and all the parts kept the other parts from going off-kilter. The weakest of the Moodies records were primarily because of that lack of balance. So it is that Hayward’s solos (and to be fair, Lodge’s solos suffer the same fate) haven’t something else to bounce off of, and when that alternate feeling is artificially introduced, it doesn’t sound right.

Fortunately Hayward doesn’t try to put on a rocker-man facade here, and even if the release sounds too romantic and too melancholy by turns, its sounds are suited to Hayward’s strengths. I agree with several other reviewers that the backing tracks sound a bit tinny and sample-originated, and I wish that the means had been there for a fuller, gutsier room of session artists to lift the songs, but that is not to leave people thinking Justin is singing along with a Casio preset. The songs sound good. They might have sounded even better. You’ll have to wait for the tour to know for certain.

I would not dissuade potential purchasers from buying this CD. It is great to have Hayward back, doing what he does best on new material. But this recording requires one to be realistic about what they are receiving. If they do so, they will likely appreciate Spirits Of The Western Sky a lot…they just need to turn the thing off before those last two tracks. That’s just some friendly unsolicited advice.

  • http://www.popdose.com/ Ted

    I’ve been a fan of the Moody Blues since I was a young lad, and Justin Hayward’s voice is certainly one that I don’t grow tired of hearing. I’m not really a fan of his solo work, but I’m willing to give this album a shot with an open mind.

    I think you make a fair assessment each member of the Moody Blues brought to the band, but Michael Pinder was, to me, the one who brought that progressive rock feel to their songs back he was with the group. Once he left the band, they drifted fairly quickly into an adult contemporary group — mostly because of the dominance of Hayward and Lodge doing almost all of the songwriting. Graeme Edge is probably the last of the progressive rock guys in the band, but it’s clear he really doesn’t have much influence over the direction of their music these days.

  • http://www.popdose.com/ DwDunphy

    This album isn’t Moody Blues…not even Keys To The Kingdom Moody Blues, but you’re right about Hayward’s voice. That he hardly registers age on this record is rather miraculous.

  • http://www.popdose.com/ Ted

    I heard two tracks today and will give the rest of the album a spin. It’s great to hear his voice on new songs, but I’m not sure if, like you, I can hear it as anything other than “pleasant.”

  • GeorgianaDC

    Ted and DW. at least you’re distinguishing between the Moody Blues releases and Justin Hayward’s solo works. That’s a start. I’ve been following the band since Go Now – pre Justin and John – but don’t honestly consider the Moody Blues to have come into their own until 1967 with Fly Me High and Days of Future Passed quickly ensuing. It was Justin’s singular songwriting and vocals that became the linchpin. Yes, Mike lent the spiritual/psychedelic aura and Ray brought the sax, flute, and baritone. Graeme is a typical drummer on steroids. John did contribute the rockier tracks, but those numbers rely heavily on Justin’s guitar work which is exceptional and sometimes overlooked or taken for granted. We’ve become that accustomed to the energy and terrific fretwork! I like the Hayward solo releases because they allow him to step out of his Moodies skin and indulge in a broader and more intimate self-expression. He has a unique sensitivity, sensibility, and romanticism that manifest in each of the songs he’s composed over time. It’s a Hayward hallmark. Also believe that it was critical for the band to evolve. Just as Justin and John (and don’t forget Tony Clarke and Derek Varnals) propelled the Moodies into 60s progressive rock, the arrival of Patrick Moraz and Tony Visconti ensured the band would be relevant in the 80s. Synthesizers and MTV videos made them 40-something darlings and won a whole new generation of fans. The PBS airing of Red Rocks and the orchestral tours that followed kept them trucking into the 90s. Times change. It’s fantastic to have the classic core 7 to listen to, but it was equally vital for adjustments to occur through the decades to ensure the band’s viability into 2013. Not bad for guys in their late-60s and early-70s — what other band can say they have toured non-stop and packed the halls? I respect Justin’s work ethic and perfectionist streak. I’ll listen to anything he releases and be delighted that he’s still out there writing, remastering, and performing. Listen to all of Spirits, from beginning to end each time, and appreciate every track. Looking forward to the June release of the big box set.

  • Matt

    I’m on board with this one. In the absence of a new Moody Blues album, I thought it was a fine listen, but I’ve always enjoyed Hayward’s solo work and that’s what was interesting about this album to me. Because there’s no Moodies album, this album sounds more Moodies-like than his past solo work.

    I was a big fan when I was growing up and I’ve kind of moved away from that in recent years. This album brought me back to those times in a good nostalgic way.