The Vinyl Diaries: Fogelberg Reconsidered, Part 1—”Nether Lands”

A few years back, our Editor-in-Chief Jeff Giles (y’all) wrote a “You Again” column/review on a posthumously released Dan Fogelberg record called Love in Time. He prefaced the review with an admission (okay, he devoted half the column to the fact) that he really didn’t care much one way or another about Fogelberg’s music, and was fully prepared to rain down a steady torrent of critical excretion on the album if it sucked, as he’d anticipated it would. Turns out, though, it didn’t. He liked the record, and said so, rather eloquently (there is little Jeff does that isn’t eloquent. Even his belches sound like Shakespeare). A year after the fact, Fogelberg’s widow, Jean, wrote Jeff a very nice thank-you note in the Comments section.

In the period between the review’s posting and Jean’s note, however, the Comments were set upon by a clutch of rabid Fogelberg faithful (“DanFans,” as they identified themselves; “Fogelfarts” as some others identified them) who pilloried our poobah with insults, vituperation, and virtual rocks ‘n’ garbage:

Your own language in this blog entry speaks to either your lack of adequate vocabulary or a desire to come across as “cool and edgy.” In fact, you only come across as a mean sort of “wanna be.”

I have never in my life read anything so musically misinformed as Mr. Giles article. Tin ear does not begin to describe it.

Do they actually pay these mutes?

… in order to appreciate that and what Dan was saying, one would have to have a view of the world larger than their own backyard …

There was even a post that took Jean to task for “padding her pockers [sic] using Dan’s fame and fanbase,” before accusing Dan Fogelberg of a tabloid-worthy romance with an elementary school teacher in North Carolina.

I found the whole thing hilarious, even jumped in a couple times, virtual Hattori Hanzo unsheathed, to defend Jeff’s honor. I also expressed interest in hearing the record myself, which is fairly odd, because, at that point, I detested much of Fogelberg’s music, the same way I detested stomach cramps and migraines. My bad attitude had nothing to do with my tin ears, inherent meanness, world view, or any attempts on my part to be cool or edgy. His work always came off as super-earnest, sonically empty, mountain-man-cum-sub-Laurel-Canyon twaddle, a musical equivalent to bland porridge—the Cream of Wheat of the Seventies singer/songwriter era. He might’ve occupied the same cultural space as Jackson Browne and the Eagles, but he lacked the former’s bite and the latter’s detached charisma.

As it turned out, though, Jeff was right—Love in Time is not a bad record. Fogelberg even covered “Birds,” one of Neil Young’s loveliest songs, and he did it well. I was surprised—both in the quality of the record and in my reaction to it.

When I started collecting vinyl again, I noticed how many Fogelberg records turned up in the used bins and collector’s crates I was digging through on the weekends—made sense, though, considering how many albums he’d sold in his heyday. I decided to collect them, to revisit his oeuvre and see if my bitter loathing of his fey muse and wimptastic delivery would hold up under a fresh hearing. I got everything from his debut, 1972’s Home Free, through 1987’s Exiles—eleven albums (including his Greatest Hits and first duo record with Tim Weisberg, Twin Sons of Different Mothers). Paid, in total, about 15 bucks for everything. The deal I made with myself was that I’d give each a good, critical listen (two or three initial pass-throughs, plus more if I thought a record warranted it), and I’d write about anything I liked. Kinda like my old “Can’t Say No” column, only if I didn’t care for the stuff, no one would know.

Fogelberg’s first three albums—Home Free, Souvenirs, and Captured Angel—came and went without much danger of my writing about them. Everything I’d remembered and disliked about Fogelberg came through in somewhat less-than-thrilling relief. With the exception of “Part of the Plan,” from Souvenirs, I was predictably underhwhelmed.

Then came Nether Lands; or, more accurately, “Nether Lands,” the title track of Fogie’s 1977 platter. And that, my friends, is when ye olde card turned.

The sweep of the song—the strings, the horns, the tension and release, the upward-looking sentiment in the lyrics—is breathtaking. If I find he didn’t write the first verse while actually “high on this mountain / the clouds down below,” I will be sorely disappointed.

Off in the nether lands
I heard a sound
Like the beating of heavenly wings
And deep in my brain
I can hear a refrain
Of my soul as she rises and sings
Anthems to glory and
Anthems to love and
Hymns filled with early delight
Like the songs that the darkness
Composes to worship the light

Translation: peyote is a hell of a drug.

Usually, I make fun of such sentiments, such über-earnest, heavy-handind pontificatin’. But for some reason, it all works. It’s a perfect storm of warmth and flourish—the ultimate sensitive mountain-man package, and I was not repulsed. I was amazed. I began to question everything I’d ever thought about the Seventies, about singer/songwriters, about mountains and light worship and anthem writing. I looked deep into my soul, down the furthest, bat-infested portal, and found, under a pile of discarded sour mash bottles and thumbed-through porn, a small child, a living creature of pure wonderment, dressed for hiking, listening to a loop of the second verse of “Fire and Rain” on an old Walkman, giggling and drooling onto his L.L. Bean footwear. I’m fucked, I thought to myself.

So what does Fogie do after dropping us off on the mountaintop? He shows us what gravity is—namely, a natural phenomenon by which physical bodies attract with a force proportional to their masses, that force being unrequited love. “Once Upon a Time” ploughs familiar ground (soil enriched by disparate organics we’ve always known and continue to know, from “You Don’t Know Me” to “Hold on to the Nights” to “The One that Got Away” and beyond), and does so with chiming acoustic strumming and Eaglesy “woos” and Fogelberg pronouncing the word your as yer, like a good Midwestern boy. It’s a tale of regret: “She’s always on your mind, but once upon a time you had her there.” Dear God, how many of us have spent considerable chunks of time with that sentiment hanging over us?

Side One marshals on, with more philosophizin’. “Lessons learned are like bridges burned,” he sings on “Lessons Learned.” “You only need to cross them once.” This, of course, is bullshit; I forgot all about quadratic equations until my kid needed homework help, and I had to look it all up again. He goes back to the mountain for “Loose Ends,” whose chorus recaptures the sweep of the title track, through the haunting lift of its melody, which meets its equal in the lyric:

And the chords struck at birth
Grow more distant
Yet, we strike them again and again.
And we plead and we pray
For a glimmer of day
As the night folds its wings
And descends
Exposing the loose ends

There you have it, boys and girls— life and death, cradle to grave, in eight lines, amplified from the mountaintop like Moses (the O.G. sensitive man, though a bit more uptight than most) hanging out on Mt. Sinai.

Side Two begins with the California soft-rock-by-numbers of “Love Gone By.” Yes, it gets points for having a pulse (think Jackson Browne’s “Walking Slow,” on the otherwise down-tempo Late for the Sky), and yes, the lap steel gee-tar and piano chording are fine touches, but Danno’s falsetto vocalizin’ can barely keep up with the band, and he bears down awkwardly on the chorus. Better is the hopelessly dour “Promises Made,” with its 12-string strum and heartbreak lyrics:

Feeling forsaken
Broken in two
How did this ever happen to you?
Taken for granted
Bruised and betrayed
Lonely survivors
These promises made

This from a man who likely had access to as many willing groupies as any other sensitive singer/songwriter of the day. I think he even toured with the Eagles at some point, and they had an abundance of nubile not-so-lonely survivors following them around. Poor guy.

“Give Me Some Time” has a lovely light bossa nova rhythm, and the requisite gut-string guitar, with vocals mixed softer than the flutes. Its lyric is perfect sensitive-Seventies-troubadour poetry; it’s also the polar opposite of “Promises Made”: he has the willing chick but he’s “got cause to be wary / For so long I’ve had to carry / The weight of another soul.” In all, it’s a very light-sounding way to dump the woman in front of you in favor for the old love you can’t have anymore.

Again, what’s there not to hate about this shit? Yet I simply cannot resist. And the whole thing ends perfectly. “False Faces” brings back the orchestral sweep of “Nether Lands” for five tingle-inducing minutes. Dominic Frontiere’s arrangement is the star here, so flawlessly executed, moving the sundown horizon itself to accommodate a small chorus of Fogelbergs and J.D. Southers. Never mind that the lyrics rail against the life of a traveling musician and the people (critics? Women?) who betray him along the way (bitch, bitch, bitch, that Fogie). The song is a wonder, the music putting muscle on Fogelberg’s fragile accusations, making even the smallest sentiments seem epic.

So, where to go from here? I suppose Twin Sons of Different Mothers is next, then Phoenix (which has “Longer” on it, and I loathe “Longer”) and The Innocent Age. If all goes well, I’ll letcha know how I fare. If this “Fogelberg Reconsidered” thing ends here, though, you’ll know I didn’t fare well.

  • kshane

    Nicely done Rob. It was Fogelberg’s debut album, Home Free, that brought me to the Capitol Theater in Passaic in the early ’70s to see him. His set wasn’t bad, nor was the John Sebastian set that followed. Unfortunately, they were both forgotten because the headliner that night, who I’d never seen before, and only barely heard of, was Bruce Springsteen.

  • EightE1

    You discovered Springsteen through Dan Fogelberg? I … I can’t look at you the same way anymore. :^)

  • kshane

    There’s more. I was there with my best friend, and my future ex-wife. We really only stayed to see Springsteen because our friend Max, who we’d known since junior high school, had just joined the band. Bruce came out and did “Incident on 57th Street” with just Roy Bittan and Suki Lahav backing him. To say it was a transcendent moment would be an understatement. My best friend Larry and I had been in bands together since we were kids, and we were blown away. Unfortunately, three or four songs later the future ex-wife tugged on my sleeve and said “come on, let’s go.” That of course marked the end of my first encounter with Mr. Springsteen, though there would be many, many more over the years.

  • Old_Davy

    I have all of Dan’s albums up to “Windows and Walls” and “Nether Lands” is by far my favorite. While it still has a lot of the Fogelberg sound to it, Dan really spread his wings on this one and the results are really great. He was able to do the same with his country album “High Country Snows”. Funny, my two favorite Fogelberg albums are the ones where he tries to be something other than Dan Fogelberg.

  • abyssgazer

    When I first started hearing Ray Lamontagne songs on my commute to work, they kind of bugged me because I could not place who he reminded me of vocally—he kind of phrases like Joni Mitchell, but whose voice is it? Whose?!?! Sirius came through by playing “Part of the Plan” some weeks later. I hadn’t thought of that Dan Fogelberg in years—I never cared much for “Captured Angel” or “Home Free”, but I loved “Souvenirs” when I was a kid. Loved. Yeah, it’s earnest and safe, but that’s the way I rolled in those days. It’s kind of sad that “Dan Fogelberg” became that guy who did that awful “Same Old Lang Syne” song, the guy who, up until recently, I couldn’t keep straight from Jackson Browne (for whom I have no love, either). I had forgotten all about “Nether Lands”, though. I loved it at the time, so I gave it a sampling. For the most part it’s not doing it for me—I can’t quite get past that certain “The hills are aliiiiveeeee…” quality to the title song. The whole album is quite, um, cinematic. I’ll give it more time. I remember liking “Twin Sons of Different Brothers”, too, but now I fear it.

    Oh, but I listened to “Souvenirs”, too—I think I still love it (a least a little). There’s a quality in Dan’s voice that diminished as he grew older—it was at its peak of perfection at the point.

  • EightE1

    Excellent points, though I don’t quite hear the Fogie in LaMongtagne. Your “Hills are aliiiive” observation is so funny, and so true, but the cinematic thing is, I think, what did it for me. The orchestration on this record really brings the songs to life. Maybe it’s mawkish and overblown — and it probably is just that — but it clicks for me, for reasons I cannot quite pinpoint (though I spent 1,600 words trying).

    And I tried with Souvenirs — I really did. But I just don’t care for it. Plus, I am fearful of what Fogie was capable of doing with that feather.

    Phoenix is the one I’m dreading. “Longer” is like Kryptonite to me. But I will give it its fair shake, in the hope that I will find in it whatever it was in Nether Lands that hooked me. To be continued, I suppose …

    Thanks for your comment.

  • jbacardi

    Nether Lands was the first Fogelberg album I ever owned, mostly because I loved the title track, for many of the same reasons you mention. I liked “Once Upon a Time” (always pining after some unrequited crush as a teen, I was) and “False Faces”. Not long after that, I started dating my soon to be wife, who loved the guy, especially that Twin Sons of Different Mothers album, and between us we wound up buying them all until he fell off the map in the 80’s. Even saw him perform once in Nashville, mainly because of my wife but also because Wendy Waldman (who I love to this day) was the opener. Even with all that, I could never really become a fan- he all too often went to the whiny confessional well, and more often as not could evoke all that was bad about that whole El Lay/Eagles-style country rock sound. When he died, I wrote this, which kinda sums up my feelings for the guy and his music.

  • EightE1

    Thanks for the comment. And that piece is very cool.