Barry Manilow

Barry Manilow

Bell, 1973

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/27/2017

One of the difficulties of writing for this website is separating years – indeed, decades – of history from the basic elements of an album and an artist's vision. In the case of Barry Manilow, it is a matter of trying to block out four decades of musical history, as well as the weight of criticism and public ridicule that would sink an ocean liner.

So, stripped of all of that, we are presented with Barry Manilow, the self-titled debut that presented Manilow as a musical jack-of-all-trades. (When Bell Records was bought out and became Arista, the album was renamed Barry Manilow I.) And this, ironically, is his downfall – he doesn't seem to quite know which direction he wants to take his musical style at this time. This is a shame, because there are moments to celebrate on this disc.

Coming off the throwaway “Sing It,” where a young Barry is urged by his grandfather (?) on an old recording to sing something, the project launches into “Sweetwater Jones,” which has all the feel of a Broadway musical number to it, albeit a minor song in the canon, one to help move the plot along. It's nothing special – neither good nor bad, just unimpressive.

The album is best known for Manilow's first hit, “Could It Be Magic” - and, even years later, the song still has legs. With a classical undertone to it, this is where Manilow seems to find his legs – namely, as a balladeer – and this particular track suggests that many more good things were to come from him. (And, yes, it is far too easy to dump on Manilow now, knowing the direction his music took – but, taken as a single slice of his history, this song proves to be surprisingly enjoyable.)my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Manilow tries to mix in pop sensibilities with ballads, especially in the second half of the album. “Seven More Years” is another surprise, a prison (!) ballad that doubles as a love song with a pop core, a combination that, against all odds, works. But when he tries to navigate the world of rock – yes, you read that right – it just doesn't feel right, as “Flashy Lady” proves.

In fact, Manilow seems to be floundering as to which direction he wants his music to take throughout the course of this album. From the scat-jazz experiment of “Cloudburst” to outright ballads such as “I Am Your Child,” it seems that Manilow is uncertain just where he fits into the musical scene, so he tries to scatter the grain into multiple fields. This, unfortunately, works to his disadvantage, at least in terms of this disc, as it proves to be a slip-shod, scattered effort as a result. He even dares to dip a toe into pseudo-disco with his take on “Friends,” a track made famous by Bette Midler, for whom he used to serve as musical director and pianist. Simply put, this one doesn't work, period.

In the end, it is the softer side of Manilow, even when it expands to a more powerful chorus, that suggests he is establishing his musical footing; songs like “Sweet Life,” “Oh My Lady” and the aforementioned “Could It Be Magic” all serve as proof that there is substance to this album.

The reissue adds four bonus tracks to the mix...and, unlike a lot of “bonuses” thrown on to re-releases in order to sell another copy, three of the tracks prove they would have fit well with the initial disc. Only “Rosalie Rosie” doesn't really feel like it was completely fleshed out; “Caroline” and “Let's Take The Time To Say Goodbye” both are fairly decent efforts, while “Star Children” is an interesting number.

We come here to honestly critique Barry Manilow,  and, in the end, the disc shows that while there was a lot of uncertainty about where he fit into a music scene that, even in 1973, was diverse, there was enough to suggest that greater things lay ahead for Manilow. As this one stands, it is a disc that would be for the diehard fans (since most of the better tracks have found their way onto numerous compilations), but there's enough here to be a pleasant surprise to the listener.

Rating: C+

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