No Other (1974) ****1/2
Man, this is one weird album. Not so much the music, which is actually fairly conventional; it just feels like a weird one, for several reasons. The music is considerably removed from Clark's usual rough-hewn but genteel country-rock: it is excessively produced and overarranged, with gospelly backup singers and a cast of cameo musicians that seemingly included every session cat in L.A. at the time (perhaps they had the same coke dealers). Yet it doesn't feel overproduced or excessively cluttered despite the fact that the music is obviously cluttered and at more than a few points bombastically overblown. Perhaps the closest comparison is if Led Zeppelin had taken the style of "No Quarter," and decided to run with that mood for an entire album - and yeah, if comparing Gene Clark to Led Zeppelin sounds out there, that's to underscore just how weird this album feels. While the underlying tunes appear to be rooted in basic country-rock, Clark slathers on elements of gospel, glammy pop, and what I can only describe as 'heavy psychedelia'. Thus, it sounds like nothing else in the Clark canon, and one gets the sense that Clark clearly intended this to be his magnum opus, a great statement encompassing various styles of his own personal synthesis of Gram Parsons' "Cosmic American Music".
It didn't work out that way, and to understand why this album fails just short of the masterpiece it was intended to be, one has to look at its history. Recorded under a cloud of cocaine and an excessive recording budget (how much went to the lavish production and how much to the musicians' dealers is anyone's guess), No Other was originally intended as a sprawling double album, but Asylum Records balked and issued a painfully truncated eight-song version instead. A commercial and critical flop, the album wasn't even released on CD until 26 years later, and caveat emptor, without the missing tracks. Thus, the only version still available is the eight-song cycle, which makes this album seem oddly short for an album with such overblown scope. It's as if they cut The Wall or whatever sprawling double album rock magnum opus in half - sure, they might have cut out some dross, but it just doesn't feel right. It's comparing the two-hour version of Once Upon a Time in America that was released in theaters and rightfully reviled, to the masterwork that the uncut four-hour version turned out to be.
So, sigh, we must make do with what we have. Only one song clocks in at under four minutes, with "Some Misunderstanding," running over eight - and it predictably does meander, but not as much as you'd expect from the length. So the songs are bloated, but the bloat fits the ambition of the album well. The melodies are translucent rather than direct, but after they sink in prove to be consistently among Clark's finest, while the lyrics - well, I did mention that this feels like a very under the influence album recorded by a large group of coked-out L.A. session musicians, didn't I? Which makes the beautiful, "From a Silver Phial," all the more powerful, I suppose, as its drug casualty observation obviously comes from close and direct experience. The album's probable highlight, the indescribably haunting, "Silver Raven," appears to be about some drug experience, as well; appears because Clark's metaphorical obtuseness prevents the listener from grasping what he's trying to get at on certain songs, not that he isn't lyrically direct and poetically forceful on certain others ("The True One," "Life's Greatest Fool"). But it's not so much the occasional lyrical references as the hazy, sepia-toned feel of the performances and unconventional song structures on tracks like the weirdly, creepily, flakily bombastic "Strength of Strings": this album is as coked-out California pop as classic Fleetwood Mac. Perhaps it's not surprising, however, that brilliant as much of this music is, it was a commercial failure: the title track, which oddly and creepily admixtures a soul gospel backup chorus to a Bowie-esque creeping synthline hook, is the closest to single material on here, and it clearly would've been a bit too 'out of it' to be a hit in 1974. Maybe baby, they'll see fit to release the rest of the sessions and we'll finally to be able to judge Clark's attempted double album as the sprawlingly complete mess it was intended to be. Until then, we'll have to accept this sprawlingly incomplete mess as a poor man's substitute.