Presented for your edification and reading/listening pleasure: a brief summary of the recorded output of one Mister Bruce Hornsby. He’s popularly known mostly for his earliest singles, and of these mainly “The Way It Is,” a vicious anti-Reagan polemic whose meaning has long been obscured by its soothingly dull arrangement.
Just as most people have glossed over the message of his biggest hit, so have they ignored his most creative work: after the relative commercial failure of his quickie, soundalike follow-up release, Hornsby quickly faded from the public eye. And here’s where his music really starts getting interesting. At a point in his career when many artists would have started making broad, fumbling grasps at a return to the charts, Hornsby did the opposite. Not only was he content with his reduced profile, he embraced it, and used it as an opportunity to grow and explore musically. He went so far afield that, when he was asked to play piano on 2Pac’s “Changes,” which was built around the melody of “The Way It Is,” he simply couldn’t remember how to duplicate the sound. With 2002’s Big Swing Face, he even showed a willingness to confound his small-but-loyal fanbase, releasing an album without any piano on it.
Over a 20-year career, Hornsby has remained ever restless, ever changing. There aren’t many mainstream artists you can say that about anymore. So let’s celebrate.
The Way It Is (1986)
Here’s where it all begins. The album is a pretty solid collection of smooth mid-’80s pop, with enough instrumental sophistication to prove that these guys aren’t just screwing around. It spun off a few hit singles; after the title track, there was “Mandolin Rain” and “Every Little Kiss.” This is in some ways my least favorite Hornsby album, because the production is so dated and muddy that it’s hard to separate the songs from the way they sound, but there aren’t any bad tracks. “The River Runs Low” is gorgeous.
download: The River Runs Low
Scenes from the Southside (1988)
The old joke is that a new artist has his whole life to write his first album, and two weeks to write the follow-up; it seems to go a long way toward explaining Scenes from the Southside. The songs hold up surprisingly well, when you consider the hot roasting this album got from critics who attacked Hornsby’s lack of artistic growth. It’s true that Southside sounds pretty much like a sequel to The Way It Is, albeit a good one. I tend to think that Hornsby’s ubiquity on Top 40 radio during 1987 just made people a little sick and tired of him. I know I was one of those people at the time. All in all, though, this is one of the best and most self-assured sophomore releases from a Grammy-winning debut artist that I’ve ever heard.
download: Look Out Any Window
A Night on the Town (1991)
Hornsby’s last album with The Range, and the first sign of his wandering spirit. As his chart fortunes declined, his standing in the artistic community grew, to the point where he was hobnobbing with serious musos like Jerry Garcia and Pat Metheny. Hornsby’s label had stopped caring by this point, which is a shame–they tossed out “Set Me in Motion” as a first single when they could easily have had a hit with something more typically Hornsby, like the beautiful “Lost Soul.” Town got some good reviews, sold poorly, and the die was pretty much cast. The rest of Hornsby’s tenure with RCA would find him as a “prestige” artist on a label that didn’t know or care how to promote his music. The silver lining to this cloud would end up being that they pretty much left him alone to do whatever he wanted.
Harbor Lights (1993)
From the first notes of the album’s opening track, you can tell this is a new Hornsby. The sound is typically described as “jazzy,” and a lot of critics suggested that Lights was influenced by Hornsby’s gig as traveling keyboard player for the Grateful Dead. There’s some truth to that, but really, he’d always had the chops–it was only now that he was discovering the room to stretch out and let them show. “Fields of Gray” was a hit on soft-rock stations; that, along with some of the most positive reviews of Hornsby’s career, contributed to a gold certification for Lights. On the whole, this set of songs is much more melodically subtle and intricate than anything he’d written before. The title track is probably the best example, but “Rainbow’s Cadillac” and “Long Tall Cool One” afford equally intriguing insights into what was to come.
Hot House (1995)
If A Night on the Town and Harbor Lights found Hornsby experimenting with jazz inflections, Hot House is where he really jumped in with both feet. Every song on the album hovers around the five-minute mark, and there aren’t many of what you’d call obvious pop hooks anywhere; it’s an album the listener needs to spend time with before its charms are really revealed. The fan favorite here is probably “Spider Fingers,” which refers to the nickname given him by fans who saw him play with the Grateful Dead.
Spirit Trail (1998)
Hot House was Hornsby’s lowest-selling album at this point, so it seemed puzzling to say the least that RCA would sanction a double album as its follow-up–but the accounting department’s oversight is the fan’s gain. Spirit Trail is more or less split between more traditional fare on the first disc, and what can only be described as AAA/R&B experimentation on the second. Hornsby’s clearly having fun here: the loping, drunken backbeat of “Sunflower Cat,” for instance, or the flowing “Variations on Swan Song & Song D.” The haunting, compassionate “Fortunate Son” and elegaic “Swan Song.” Or “Preacher in the Ring”–parts one and two–or “Sneaking Up On Boo Radley” or “Funhouse.” It’s amazingly solid for a double album, and presents an artist at the top of his game.
Here Come the Noise Makers (2000)
In an era of deeply unnecessary live albums, Noise Makers stands out in bright relief. Instead of Pro Tooled replicas of the studio versions, Hornsby and his band turn the catalog inside out–it’s improvisational yet disciplined, free-flowing yet solidly grounded, sprawling yet concise. These tracks are culled from three years of touring, but there’s no discernable separation. In other words, it’s a really good live album, not your typical stopgap; in fact, a lot of the recordings here are superior to their studio counterparts.
Big Swing Face (2002)
RCA almost didn’t release this one, which is saying something–they’d been leaving Hornsby alone for basically ten years, despite largely diminishing sales returns and an increasingly mammoth corporate structure. Someone upstairs must have finally figured out or remembered he was on the roster, and upon hearing Face, freaked out. It’s full of programmed beats, processed vocals, and completely missing anything that sounds like a piano. In short, it’s an artistic leap, the likes of which you aren’t likely to hear from a recording artist on his seventh album. A lot of Hornsby fans hated it. Whatever. I say you’ve got to respect the balls behind a decision like this.
Halcyon Days (2004)
After Face failed to chart, Hornsby ankled RCA and spent a couple of years without a contract. He was in a strange position, career-wise–a lot of his contemporaries had been seeking out independent distribution since the late ’90s. Major labels, once the only real option for an artist desirous of widespread distribution, were no longer a foregone conclusion for a veteran artist, particularly an artist who remained a dependable concert draw and took the time to interact with his fans through his website. While he considered his options, Hornsby recorded what would become Halcyon Days. Never shy about working with guests, he pulled out all the stops here, enlisting Elton John, Clapton, and Sting for cameos. It seems likely that this was done to guarantee label interest, especially considering Halcyon’s songs; for the first time, after a decade of abrupt artistic jumps, Hornsby seems content to retread old ground. The result is an album that probably made a lot of old fans happy, and might even have won back some who were frightened off by Big Swing Face, but it’s also a fairly staid and predictable set of songs. There are some beautiful moments, to be sure, but it’s difficult not to feel as though this album is a detour–a concession, albeit an eminently listenable one.
Of course, he’s best in concert…best seen in concert, actually, but since I can’t fly him into your living room, here’s a random assortment of unreleased live performances.
Hope you enjoy the songs!