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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Our "Long Road Out of Eden"

As the George W. Bush administration winds to a merciful conclusion, I've been searching for a cultural touchstone to mark the era (or perhaps "error" is a better word).

Movies about 9/11 and the Iraq War already have been made, and Oliver Stone's W will be released soon. A number of excellent nonfiction books have been produced about various aspects of the Bush administration, and many more surely will be on the way. Even a work of fiction, Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, was recently released to strong reviews.

But I was looking for something that captures the "feel" of the entire nation during these past eight years. And for that, I turned to music.

Folks who lived through the '60s and '70s can testify to music's unique ability to capture a time and place. And a current double CD captures the Bush era in a compelling and memorable way--almost like an oral history with a rock-and-roll beat.

The CD is not produced by what you might call a "current" band. In fact, these four guys are best known for their work from the '70s. But Long Road Out of Eden proves that the Eagles are still relevant, some 28 years after they released their previous studio album.

All four of the Eagles--Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, and Timothy B. Schmitt--are at or very near 60. But at the risk of sounding like an old fart from the '70s--which is exactly what I am, come to think of it--I'm not aware of any "modern" act that can touch them.

From 1971 to 1980 the Eagles released six seminal studio albums, including Hotel California, which ranks in the top 10 on most any list of all-time great records. They took a 28-year "vacation" from the studio before releasing Long Road Out of Eden late last year. It missed the deadline for last year's Grammys, but should be a nominee for Album of the Year this time around.

Through 20 songs on two disks, the Eagles are in fine form. You probably won't hear many songs from the CD on the radio, but large chunks of Eden rank with the best work the Eagles have ever done--and that's saying something. Releasing an album of this quality, some 36 years after their debut (featuring the classic Take It Easy), cements a special place in rock-and-roll history for the Eagles. Only the Rolling Stones, I believe, can claim to have made relevant pop/rock music for such a long period of time.

Here's what has always impressed me about the Eagles. All four current members--Frey and Henley are the remaining originals--are "triple threats." They play instruments, sing lead, and write. The same can be said of the three former members--Randy Meisner, Bernie Leadon, and Don Felder. Meisner and Leadon helped solidify the band's country-rock sound in the early days. And Felder's edgy guitar work helped launch the band to super-group status. Felder might be the least known Eagle. And yet, he wrote the basic track to Hotel California, featuring one of the most memorable guitar intros in music history.

If you are heavily into vocals, no one does harmonies like the Eagles. Eden is filled with lush harmonies, particularly on the more pop-oriented disk one. The guys turn serious on disk two, and that's where they begin to capture the Age of Rove.

The centerpiece of the CD is the title track, which opens disk two. Henley is the band's chief lyricist, and he has done some of his best work on this album. Waiting in the Weeds, from disk one, is a Henley classic about the need for patience and deliberation in a hurry-up world.

The title track is an epic 10-minute piece that brilliantly creates a sense of place:

Moon shining down through the palms
Shadows moving on the sand
Somebody whispering the 23rd Psalm
Dusty rifle in his trembling hands

The scene shifts "over the ocean" to an America that is "far away and fast asleep." While some Americans put their lives on the line in faraway places, the rest of us are "having lunch at the Petroleum Club," filling our consumptive needs with "barbecued brisket" and "pecan pie."

This world features "freeways flickering, cell phones chiming a tune." And it is run by "captains of the old order, clinging to the reins, assuring us these aches inside are only growing pains."

In the third scene, Henley appraises modern America--and it isn't a pretty picture:

Weaving down the American highway
Through the litter and the wreckage and the cultural junk
Bloated with entitlement, loaded on propaganda
Now we're driving dazed and drunk

In the end, Henley decides, we are awash in information, but we don't know what to do with it:

Behold the bitten apple
The power of the tools
But all the knowledge in the world
Is of no use to fools

This passage, with its reference to the Mac logo that symbolizes our supposed ingenuity, is painful to read--and devastatingly on target.

The complete lyrics to Long Road out of Eden are available here. The CD is splendid from start to finish, and we will take a look at other tracks that examine the social and political undercurrents of the past eight years.

Here is a video of the entire 10-minute title track. Below that is a video from a live performance at Madison Square Garden. The performance video is not the greatest, and it does not include the entire song. But it gives a feel for how Eden is presented in the live setting:

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