Monday, February 3, 2020

I'd Love to Turn You On #249: Yes - The Yes Album (1971)

The Yes Album is a very hard one for me to start reviewing because there are so many things I can talk about with it. This album has not only been something I’ve been listening to since I first started playing guitar and bass; it’s not just an album that has started conversations with people who would become some of my best friends; it’s not just a weird album cover that you can stare at forever and still not understand it. This album is all that and more than I ever thought it could be. I don’t remember the first time I listened to this - it got lost in the brains of 14 year-old me - but I haven’t forgotten a note of it, and I still try to sing along to it even though I know I will never get close to Jon Anderson’s voice.
Starting an album with “Yours Is No Disgrace” seems so obvious - the opening hits trick you into thinking you know what’s coming on this album. Rarely do you hear all the instruments so crazily defined in the mix, with them all acting as one giant, speeding bus that they call a chord progression; but once you’re in for the ride they don’t let go because this song is just shy of ten minutes long and barely feels like it. It moves so freely that you don’t even feel exhausted by the end of it. The next song feels like it’s the complete opposite of what you’d hear on a classic prog rock album - solo acoustic guitar, courtesy of Steve Howe, with “The Clap.” It’s a piece that is just about three minutes of straight fire coming out of Steve’s fingers, a blend of classical, jazz, and traditional blues guitar styles all put in the stew of a kinda rock song - an odd choice for the second song on an album but it’s a very nice comedown from the extravagance that is “Yours Is No Disgrace.” “Starship Trooper” is really where this album takes off - that little bass part that kicks in when this song hits means as much to me as any two seconds of music ever has. Everything they were doing on the first track is executed perfectly here - the various melodies of the vocals, guitar, and bass all get stuck in your head as separate parts but you can’t have one without the others. It helps that the lyrics are inspired by the 1959 book of the same name, which was also the basis for the amazing movie of the same name (I’m still mad they never used the song in the movie). For as tight a band as Yes is, this song sometimes feels like it’s about to fall apart, but right when that moment comes they tighten up and become a much more cohesive unit, one that went on to take on the world.
Flipping the record over and dropping the needle on “I’ve Seen All Good People” is always going to be a therapeutic moment for me. It’s very clearly the first time I heard a musical Easter egg - the background choir singing “All we are saying, is give peace a chance” - that I haven’t been able to unhear since. My dad brought me up on The Beatles and Lennon, so I already knew that phrase and melodic line, but even just the simple line “Send an instant karma to me” was something I didn’t know you could do in music; it was so revelatory, and subconsciously made me interested in knowing what the bands I liked listened to. References like that make the music so much more personal, especially when some of the extreme metal bands I listen to now will have long extended solos and for a moment - blink and you’ll miss it - you’ll hear these bands do Yes riffs, ripped straight from this album, in their crazy distorted madness. It’s a moment that makes you feel connected to the band on a personal level and oddly makes some of these people more approachable, both in skill and personality. 
Outside of the music, this album has been a beacon in my life; it’s an album that my dad always said was one of his favorites ever, by one of his favorite bands ever. He took me to see what remained of Yes in 2012, far from the prime of this band, and most diehard fans wouldn’t want to see this version, but it was still so magical. This is the album that I had the cover of hanging next to my bed throughout middle school and high school - not a poster, the actual sleeve of the album with record still in it. It’s an album that I've been lucky enough to not only be able to share with the people I love, but use as jumping off points for things that some of my best friends and I first talked about, still talk about, and will always talk about.
- Max Kaufman

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