Graded on a Curve: America,
Perspective

Talk about the Fall of America. By 1984 the folk-rock trio that gave us “Horse with No Name,” “Ventura Highway,” and “Sister Golden Hair” had been reduced to a duo (multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Dan Peek quit the fold in 1977), barely broke the top 200 with its LP of the same year Perspective, had but one charting single worth mentioning since 1976, and become such a poor concert draw that in one notable instance they were reduced to playing a bowling alley. You could almost hear that horse with no name whinnying, “Who are the no namers now?”

But America wasn’t about to lower the flag. Believers in the principle that desperate times call for really stupid measures, on 1984’s Perspective the band’s remaining members Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley decided to get with the times and update their sound with synthesizer players (eight in all) and drum machines. This was akin to Emerson, Lake and Palmer tossing their $8 million of state-of-the-art musical equipment to become a ukulele trio.

America were one of many representatives of the early seventies Southern California folk rock dream, this despite such risible lines from “Horse with No Name” as “the heat was hot” and Randy Newman’s hilarious dismissal of the song’s subject as “a kid who thinks he’s taken acid.” But “Ventura Highway” is almost as good a freewheeling song about chilling on the road as the Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” and four of the band’s five LPs broke into the American Top 10. But by 1979’s Silent Letter, America had permanently lost the plot. Even John Denver, that chipmunk epitome of the un-hip, maintained a tenuous grip on the pop charts until 1983’s It’s About Time.

You can tell from Perspective’s cover that times had been a changin’, and not for the better. Gone are the long hair and iconic imagery of the American West, replaced by Bunnell and Beckley standing before an image of a high-rise that seems to climb to infinity. They’re wearing sports coats, a pathetic image remake if there ever was one, and Beckley appears to have ripped his off the back of Miami Vice’s Don Johnson.

More importantly, gone are the MOR charms of such early seventies hits “Sandman” and “Lonely People.” In their stead you get generic ’80s synthpop dreck. Time was Bunnell and Beckley wrote their own songs; on Perspective Beckley gets two sole songwriting credits, with one or the other of the duo getting co-songwriting credits on four more. The remaining songwriting credits go mostly to slick pros and producers, only two of whose names—Jimmy Webb and Journey’s Steve Perry—will strike a chord with your average pop music listener.

The results aren’t unlistenable, but one can only wonder who would listen to them. Only “Stereo,” a stripped-down tune featuring Beckley’s familiar vocals shows a spark of—albeit faintly—the America of yore. “Unconditional Love,” on which Bunnell takes the lead, is no worse than many of the songs you could hear on the radio during the benighted era, and features the duo’s vocal harmonies to great effect.

And that’s it, aside from “Lady with a Bluebird,” which boasts a negligible reggae beat but at least differentiates itself from such personality-free and lackluster contributions to the ’80s synth and programmed drum trash heap. The remaining songs on Perspective are alternately upbeat (“We Got All Night” and “See How the Love Goes,” to name but two) or ballads (“Fifth Avenue” and “Special Girl” to name but two more), with several (“Cinderella” being the worst) worthy of being singled out for special opprobrium.

The album’s only conceivable plus are its echoes of the commanding vocal harmonies that made the America of the mid- to late seventies a commercial success. The overriding question is why anyone would want to hear them wasted on vinyl. Mock “Horse with No Name” if you will—Tom Waits memorably said of it, “How about ‘I rode through a desert on a horse with no legs’? That I can see.” But the song had character and you would have to be living in the catacombs beneath Paris not to know it, which is plenty more than you can say about the songs on Perspective.

I look back on America’s commercially successful folk-rock songs with fondness—”Ventura Highway” is a classic of its genre—and it’s sad to hear them throw in their lot with the faceless many. And while it would be nice to know they’ve resurrected themselves on the nostalgia circuit—there are, or at least you would think—many who would love to hear them again—only one of Perspective’s eleven recordings charted, and it didn’t break the Top 100.

Perspective is what happens when a truly desperate band sacrifices everything that made it special in an attempt to keep us with the times. America sold their soul and got nothing in return. Waits was right in the end—America wound up a horse with no legs, and Perspective makes for very sad and painful listening. Talk about your bowling alleys; Perspective is a gutter ball, with the bowling bumpers for kids up, no less.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D-

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