PECULIAR CHAP, Captain Beefheart. Ever since the full-frontal attack of “Trout Mask Replica” – still my favourite of all his works, whatever he says – he seems to have been moving towards what we professional euphemists tend to refer to as a ‘more accessible’ kind of music. In other words, – he’s been coming in from the unique, arresting stance he’d struck on “Trout Mask” to a position closer to the mainstreams of rock. That does not imply criticism. for with albums like “Lick My Decals Off. Baby”, “The Spotlight Kid” and to a lesser extent as far as I’m concerned “Clear Spot”. He brought with him an approach that infused what might have been quite ordinary songs with a quality that twisted them just off course and lifted them far above merely good. The Magic Band too – whatever the notes, they played up to their name. Now comes “Unconditionally Guaranteed”, a giant step along the same road but one that makes you think – at first at least – that perhaps the medium is overtaking the messenger.
This time he really has pared the songs down to basics, and a chap is likely to hear people saying that this really should get him to a lot more people – not, I’m sorry to say because people have finally begun to appreciate Beefheart, but because Beefheart is playing down to what people have already accepted. Yet in a strange kind of way, I prefer it to most of ‘Clear Spot” – “Big Eyed Beans From Venus’ excepted, old bean. As far as the words go, the album is much more straightforward than ever before, with little emphasis on his love of puns and obscure word association. The tunes move along much more predictable lines, as do the arrangements and production ideas, and despite the occasional growl and hiccup (there’s a clever way of spelling that which for the moment escapes me) Beefheart sings in a much more schooled fashion than is usual. Looking at it logically, all that makes me inclined to file it away for reference and go back to earlier records, but overall the album does have a compulsive quality: I’ve often contended that imposing disciplines on musicians forces them into corners where they have to use much greater inventiveness and power simply to beat the chains, and the constraints of the material on this album do seem to have brought a lot out of the musicians involved.
Something very strong does glow through what would otherwise be an unexceptional album, but its something that I feel rather than can identify. Whether that feeling will communicate to other people I don’t know, and whether its face-value qualities will bring him to a wider audience I know even less. You try it.