I always try to give an artist the benefit of the doubt when they decide to try something new. For many casual fans, a change in approach makes them lose interest; I've always tried to be more flexible, and, I suppose, loyal to someone whose work I've enjoyed in the past. I guess I figure once they've given me a certain amount of pleasure, they've earned the right to test my patience a little.
For example: I'm not crazy about Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album, but I admire its audacity. I thought U2's Pop was downright annoying musically, but admit the lyrics are as good as anything they've ever done. And then there's Yes, a band that seems to virtually alternate between great and terrible albums... and yet, I keep buying them.
But five years later, I still haven't managed to forgive Bruce Hornsby for Harbor Lights.
Hornsby's 1986 debut The Way It Is was an overdue breath of fresh air in the plasticized '80s -- the rich, rolling acoustic piano melodies; the evocative lyrics, full of images of small-town life along the Virginia coast; the seamless construction of the songs; and the precision of Hornsby's tight band, The Range. The follow-up Scenes From The Southside was, if anything, even better, a hugely engaging and resonant song cycle of life in the South in the late 1980s. 1990's A Night On The Town took the band toward a looser sound, with less care spent on the lyrics and more on the solos, and represented a step down on the quality scale in my mind.
Then, with Harbor Lights, Hornsby took a swan dive off the platform.
Apparently, at some point Hornsby decided simply playing sweet melodies within the confines of well-constructed songs didn't allow him enough room to display his notable prowess on the keyboard. So, he seems to have said to himself, the hell with structure, the hell with melody, the hell with the fans and even the hell with the band... let's just stick a rhythm section in the back to keep the beat and I'll start playing my frigging fingers off, and for fun maybe invite in a few guests like fusion guitarist Pat Metheny and my old pal Jerry Garcia in here to jam along with me.
To Hornsby, I suspect Harbor Lights felt like a declaration of independence. You know, "I scored my hits, got the multi-album deal from the label, and now I'm going to do whatever I damn well please musically." Well, what he does on Lights may have pleased him (it must have, since he's done two more albums in the same style since), but for a fan of the likes of "Mandolin Rain" and "The Valley Road," there's precious little to cheer about here.
The gorgeous, flowing piano lines and tight folk-pop arrangements of his first two albums are banished almost completely; in their place is a fragmented, painfully self-conscious style that seems to be trying to cram juking, atonal jazz rhythms and wandering instrumental passages into his old song structure. As Hornsby himself confesses in the liner notes, on this album "no one ever accused us of playing one note when five would do."
In places it's almost interesting, watching Hornsby stretch. The title song has its moments early on, when he lets the band play like they mean it, building up momentum into the initial choruses. But just when you think it's about time to wrap up and get out, he blows the whole deal by veering off into first a horribly off-key piano bridge and then an aimless two-minute instrumental break where he trades pretty but irrelevant solos with Metheny.
Next up, "Talk of the Town" reveals a change in Hornsby's approach to singing that's as unwelcome as the change in his approach to the songs themselves. Rather than employing the soaring vocal energy that brought his first two albums to life, he plays laid-back soul man, burying what could have been a meaningful pop tune about an interracial romance in a unwieldy jazz-singer pose full of staccato rhythms and sing-song spoken vocals, a style that brutally wastes his voice's capabilities.
The rest of the album amounts to more of the same. "China Doll" resembles the title track in that it starts off strong but then runs off the tracks into a series of purposeless instrumental breaks. Here his herky jerky piano fills and two-hand "aren't I something?" solos are nothing short of grating, and Metheny's patched-in guitar run is sharp but thoroughly out of place.
"Fields of Gray" shows the most promise, building up a nice head of steam melody-wise -- until he hands the solo off to a string quartet. I mean, why stop there? Why not throw in the frigging USC Marching Band (with all due apologies to Fleetwood Mac)? The six-and-a-half-minute, unintentionally ironic "Pastures of Plenty" closes the album, its three-minute lyric all but obliterated by a series of bloated, chronically self-indulgent solos from Hornsby and special guest noodler Garcia.
Overall, Harbor Lights shows Hornsby turning his back on everything that made him such a pleasure to listen to on his first two albums. The songs lack resonance, the solos lack restraint, and the entire exercise lacks the kind of polished craftsmanship that made his early music such a pleasurable listen. Instead, you get Hornsby and his pals swinging, jiving, jamming and overplaying to their hearts' content, satisfying no one but themselves.