Dw. Dunphy On… The Strange Case of Yes’s “Union”

Written by Dw. Dunphy On..., Music

There are few musical families as dysfunctional as Yes. Members fall in, they drop out, return with fanfare, depart with acrimony — this is a pattern that has cycled through the career of the group for as long as it’s been around. Following the modest success of Big Generator, still seen as a disappointment for not being the game-changer 90125 was, the group fractured. Gone was Jon Anderson for the second time (the first was in the late ’70s when he was replaced by Trevor Horn in the Drama line-up,) who rejoined with Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe and Bill Bruford to form the less than brilliantly named Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. (We only get paid if you win your case!)

The debut didn’t have a smash hit like “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” but did recall the classic Yes albums with extended epic tracks and suite-like construction. For the old fans it was as good a reunion as they could have hoped for. Meanwhile Chris Squire, who apparently has the rights to the Yes name, soldiered on with Tony Kaye, Alan White and Trevor Rabin. They were recording tracks and utilizing outside vocalists. It was unclear whether they would indeed be the latest version of Yes or whether they’d return to their initial concept, the one that developed into 90125, and become Cinema. What was clear was that they no longer had a commitment with Atlantic Records. ABWH signed to Arista, initially an odd fit as that label was seen more for their pop roster headlining Whitney Houston. What Arista seemed to want was a hit, something that classic Yes never really set their sights on, but the industry was different then. The sessions for ABWH 2 seemed to focus on shorter, groove-oriented tracks.

So on one side you had the old guard with the diehard fans and the contract, and on the other side you had the core of the reconstituted band that helmed their most popular entry. You also had two half-albums between them. It was agreed that one needed the other, and the Union album was born. ABWH 2 was being produced by Jonathan Elias, who became the de facto overseer of the project. Anderson lent vocals to the Yes tracks while Rabin added backups to the ABWH tracks, Squire replaced some (not all) bass tracks initially laid down by Tony Levin, and there was a fair amount of intermingling going on. By the end of it, Union became the most complete document of the band member-wise, complete with a stunning cover painted by longtime art collaborator Roger Dean. It should have been a massive success.

What went wrong?

For starters, expectation trumped a realistic understanding of what Yes was in the year 1991. It was no longer a youth-culture icon; with 90125
coming out all the way back in 1983, they weren’t just dinosaurs, they were double dinosaurs. That did not deter the band’s drooling fanatics from sending it to gold status, but the mojo of their unexpected prior comeback simply didn’t translate into this one. Just as the industry was hot for hit singles, and had no time for the pretense of 15-minute, album-side musical statements, audiences were becoming disenchanted with everything that same industry mindset was sending out. A year later, the grunge revolution would overturn everything for a brief period of time, but the dissatisfaction was fomenting at the doorsteps of the stalwarts.

And to make matters worse, a large portion of the songs on Union
just aren’t very good. There are a couple of decent rock tracks (“Lift Me Up”, “Saving My Heart”), an entertaining but bald-faced attempt to duplicate the synth-funk of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (“Dangerous”) and another gorgeous guitar piece from Steve Howe (“Masquerade”), but the rest of the album tends to fall on its face. Things weren’t too cozy inside the band either. In an interview in Keyboard Magazine, Rick Wakeman expressed his displeasure with how Jonathan Elias digitally chopped up and reworked the keyboard lines, apparently without Wakeman’s consent. At the time it struck the reader as some sort of sacrilege, the neophyte meddling with the master’s work. Nineteen years later, the producer has most of the power, is in many ways the new star of the show, and chop-socky digital reworking is put way up front, not meant to be seamless and invisible. For what it is, it’s a fascinating clash between the old and new schools of thought; it’s just that they, and we, didn’t know it then.

The last time I took Union down off the shelf and gave it a thorough listen had to have been at least ten years ago, maybe longer. The band has done worse since (the baffling Open Your Eyes) and better (the nearly redemptive The Ladder,) and a lot of my own prejudices have drifted in terms of other bands’ work. I decided now might be the time to give it another chance, to see if this has aged better than I expected, or if I’ve aged enough to meet it halfway. It started with baby steps: it sat next to the stereo unit in the bedroom for a couple days and hadn’t transitioned to the car, where I sadly find most of my music listening happening these days. It’s not out of choice either — I wedge the listening in between driving to work and driving back home. Once I’m home, I only want to sleep because that’s where I’m a Viking. When it finally did graduate to the car, I was surprised, but not wildly.

The album revealed itself to be somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle. A couple songs here sound a bit like songs there and I imagined this could have been a long track whittled down to smaller ones, bite-sized, in hopes that the pieces might make acceptable singles. The opening “I Would Have Waited Forever” reveals itself to be another attempt to recall “Owner of a Lonely Heart” with keyboard mashes and funk twists and turns. It doesn’t succeed, but for some reason I found I was no longer as annoyed as I might have been had I discovered this in 1991. The same goes for the herky-jerky “Without Hope You Cannot Start the Day” with its wildly veering pastiche, a mini-suite that feels more like a few studio ideas mashed up into a single track. I was more accepting of what it was than what it was not. The production left a lot to be desired and even in the light of the new way, I still agree with Wakeman’s sentiment, if not the totality of his assessment. The keyboards are incredibly busy, even for a prog album – they’re shoved in every crack and crevice, and often have no cohesive thread to them. They become noise for the sake of noise.

The drums don’t hold up much better either and they sound, frequently, replaced by drum machines. They’re mixed into a treble-trapped tapping, there’s no weight to them at all, and one has to wonder why anyone would choose to replace a natural Bill Bruford or Alan White performance with a lot of tweaks and punches. The tracks initialized by Squire and Rabin suffer as much as the Elias tracks, but I suspect everything was poked with in order to make all the songs sound of a single unit. They don’t, and some of those choices lead the album not to the better.

What it was not was great, and to an extent the harsh criticism the album initially drew is still valid, but the good I found in Yes’ Union
is good enough, for the occasional listen, for mixtape fodder, and as a document of when the family mostly got back together, however briefly, to sit at the same table.

It’s still better than Genesis’ Calling All Stations.

Dangerous (Look In The Light Of What You’re Searching For)

Yes’ Atlantic/Atco releases are available from Rhino.

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