Gilberto Gil’s 1969 album, which like his 1968 and 1971 albums is simply entitled Gilberto Gil, is a wild mélange of psychedelic pop, Brazilian sambas and bossa novas, guitar overload, and much more; hugely inspired by the rock movements taking place up north in the United States and across the pond in Britain, but delivered with a distinctly Brazilian spin. One key difference is that the music Gil and his cohorts (Caetano Veloso, the band Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, composer Rogério Duprat, and others) were making was being made under a military dictatorship, and while the young musicians keyed in on the transgressive and expansive possibilities of rock music, their government reacted harshly to the youth movement. One might draw a parallel to what musicians faced in the English-speaking countries, but no musicians I know of from the era were ever forcibly sent into exile out of their home country because of their involvement with the music scene, which happened to both Gil and Veloso in 1969.
But back to this record. Gilberto Gil had been an active professional musician since the mid-60’s but began releasing solo albums with his debut in 1967. His debut is in a much more traditional vein than what followed because in the interim between that album and his 1968 self-titled release the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which several accounts say Gil listened to obsessively. The 1968 album features Gil in full faux-military regalia on the cover and couldn’t be a more explicit tribute to the Beatles, full of wild arrangements that jump from sound to sound (usually within one song) and keep the musical surprises coming, backed by the young band Os Mutantes and arranged by Rogério Duprat. But on this 1969 release, he pushed the experimentalism even further, this time with Stanley Kubrick’s landmark film 2001: A Space Odyssey as an artistic touchstone. In what I can make out of the lyrics without seeking online translations, I note references in two songs a row to astronauts, a song entitled “2001” and the lead cut called “Cérebro Eletrônico,” which translates as “electronic brain.” Note that these were all released the same year as David Bowie’s celebrated “Space Oddity” single and its attendant album, and were all recorded and done before Bowie’s tune had been released. And then there’s the closing track, “Objeto Semi-Identificado,” (English: “Purpose Semi-Identified”), Gil and his collaborators’ take on the Beatles’ “Revolution #9,” which is wild and out there, but still settles into musical phrases more regularly than the Brits’ track does. In fact, it’s not unlike the 1968 album’s experimentalism taken to further extremes – still listenable but jumping wildly all over the place.
And none of the space stuff and reckless experimentation touches on some of the album’s most notable virtues – Gil’s strong and sometimes slightly unhinged singing grounded in the rhythms that are the heart of the best Brazilian music, guitarist Lanny’s fuzzed out psych guitar work across the whole album (notable in the very first cut, but really, it’s everywhere), and Rogério Duprat’s better-integrated arrangements that don’t sound as much like separate ideas tacked together, but rather a way to augment the possibilities of Gil’s finely balanced pop sensibilities that lurk underneath that reckless experimentalism. And it also doesn’t note the album’s hit song and finest track, “Aquele Abraço” – an irresistible samba groove that is a love letter to Rio and an ode to joy, calling out samba schools, football clubs, street parades, etc. It’s so buoyant, joyous, and propulsive that you’d never know that Gil wrote the song while on house arrest awaiting exile. Or that on this song, like most of the album, Gil wrote and laid down basic vocal and acoustic guitar tracks at his home in Salvador, Bahia while Duprat made the musical arrangements for the album and recorded the other instruments in Rio and São Paulo. Back in February Gil and Veloso had been arrested by the military government, spent three months in prison and four under house arrest, and then were told to leave the country, living in Europe in exile until they were allowed to return in 1971. They were given no reason or charge for their arrest. If you think youth music can’t be a powerful force, think about that for a bit. And next time the cops bust up your party that’s too loud, think for a bit about how much worse off you could be.
The fact that Gil could make a record this delightful under these conditions is remarkable, thanks in no small part to Rogério Duprat’s sterling work in bringing its disparate ideas together. At least six tracks are delights, with two of the others fine enough and letting up the tension a little, and then the wild closing number of “Objeto Semi-Identificado.” But there’s a happy ending - on return to Brazil, Gil continued making music (obviously music that would be less offensive to the government) and contributing greatly to the artistic culture of his home country in spite of how he’d been treated. And from 2003 - 2008, under a new government, Gil served as Brazil's Minister of Culture, resigning only for health reasons after having his resignation rejected twice by the president. He left to have a vocal cord polyp treated and to return to music, which he continues to this day, having released four new albums since leaving his political career behind. But his landmark work from the late-60’s into the mid-70’s remains the cornerstone of his catalog, a catalog well worth perusing in its entirety.
- Patrick Brown