The Best Years of Our Lives (1975) ****
Goodbye, Cockneys; hello, Steve. For whatever reasons of ego or dissension, the original Cockney Rebel broke up prior to this release, with only drummer Stuart Elliott to follow the leader. The music subsequently takes a drastic nosedive in terms of musical identity - precious little of the quirk and charm of the first pair of Cockney Rebel albums; instead it's mostly straightforward mid-'70s pop-rock soaked in by-then-conventional glam negligee. Around a decade or so ago, I made this my first toedip into Harleyland, and while I enjoyed quite a few of the songs, I couldn't quite figure out what the fuss was: he seemed like an entertaining, but highly derivative johnny-come-lately of Bryan Ferry and David Bowie. Now that I've heard him within the context of the first two Rebel albums, I can discern his unique talents; but it is only through that prism that one can distinguish every subsequent album as anything more than well-crafted, sometimes excellent but non-earthshaking mainstream '70s rock. Steve Harley the talented singer-songwriter remains intact, but Steve Harley the musical visionary has departed the building.
Get over that and what you are left with are 'merely' some great tunes with enticingly delivered vocals and cryptically intriguing lyrics. In fact, with Harley playing it relatively straighter (lyrically and musically), the songs are more immediately catchy and emotionally rewarding than anything off of the first pair of records. The title track may be a put-on, full of Dylan-esque straining towards grand import and emotional resonance, despite amounting to little more than a string of non-sequiturs - "Lost now for the words to tell you the truth / Please banter with me the banter of youth" - but damn if it isn't improbably moving in spite of itself. Harley may be putting on the mask of the sensitive troubadour for sport, but he sings richly (ah, that vocal may be the performance of his career) with such actor's conviction that he completely and convincingly inhabits the form. "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)" is the track that towers above all the rest, however - center-pieced dab in the middle, and Harley's only #1 hit. Deservedly so: it's simply one of the greatest pop singles of all time, full stop. Harley's crisp crooning over the lush but sprightly bed of acoustic guitars and cooing background oo-la-la vocals, as he alternately disdains and implores his potential conquest - you'll think it's tragic, but it's magic, it's the best single of 1975. And that Spanish guitar break is pure icing. "Mr. Raffles," was the more than worthy follow-up, not quite as magical (how could it be?) but a hit in its own right, and one of Harley's most lyrically intriguing: late-period Dylan gone Elton John is the best I could describe it, with the clever sound effect of cracking maracas immediately after the "you shot that Spanish dancer," line always giving me a chuckle. The paranoid, "Back to the Farm," is the key 'deep album track', a moody set-piece that is very, very Roxy-esque, underscored with Eno-esque synth squeals if you missed the point. If I had to pick a weak track, it would either be the mild (very mild) quasi-funk of "49th Parallel," or the atmospheric but hookless, "It Wasn't Me," all drifting six minutes of it. But neither are bad, just forgettable - this may not be Harley's most adventurous album, but it is perhaps his most consistently tuneful one.
Bonus tracks: "Another Journey," is a melodic gem that should've graduated from B-side to album track (replacing either one of the two aforementioned weaker tunes). The live version of "Sebastian," stretches on for nearly 11 minutes, which isn't undeserved, and certainly gives Harley's vox a good workout - if you want to hear the man at his most throat-shreddingly impassioned, here you go. Maybe "somebody called me Sebastian," actually did mean something deeply personal to Steve, after all.