The Byrds – Younger Than Yesterday

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Part I: The Background

The Byrds’ fourth studio album, the follow up to 1966’s Fifth Dimension, dispenses even further with the group’s folk foundations as they tread further and further into the realm of psychedelia. The album also sees them revisit another Bob Dylan song—this time the anti-protest song “My Back Pages”—despite the majority of the songs being penned by the band themselves (bassist Chris Hillman contributes the largest number of compositions, with Jim McGuinn and David Crosby providing the remainder). Record producer Gary Usher, known for his early collaborations with the Beach Boys (he most notably co-wrote the lyrics to “In My Room”) teamed up with the band and helped them explore new sounds and possibilities in the recording studio. Younger Than Yesterday may not have been as beloved as the band’s previous albums at the time, but along with their next album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, it represents the band at their creative and experimental peak.

 

Part II: The Music

So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star: The album opens with its lead single and the most enduring track on the album. McGuinn provides a jaded critique of the manufactured nature of the music industry—reportedly the song is written in response to the popularity of The Monkees, who at the time hadn’t yet begun writing their own songs or playing their own instruments. The band’s trademark folk harmonies kick in as McGuinn laments the fact that the entertainment business favours image over talent: “And with your hair swung right / And your pants too tight / It’s gonna be all right.” The song features a crowd of screaming fans—the incorporation of sound effects into studio recordings was something of a trend during the psychedelic era. “In a week or two, when you make the charts / The girls will tear you apart,” McGuinn sings—being a rock star is more about the “star” than it is about the “rock”. The song has just as much pop appeal as a Monkees hit; the singsong melodies and traditional strong structure are perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek. McGuinn himself, however, claims that the lyrics are meant to be taken at face value; the song is meant to inspire a generation of aspiring rock musicians to chase their dreams. Regardless of the meaning, this tight composition kicks off the album with a whole lot of energy. RATING: 9/10

Have You Seen Her Face: This Chris Hillman composition emulates the popular mid-60s Merseybeat sound. The entire song is sung in harmony; it captures that Lennon-McCartney magic (both melodies are equally compelling on their own) with a sprinkle of the Hollies. The guitar work is chocked full of attitude and much more coherent than the drugged-out haze of “Eight Miles High”. RATING: 9/10

C.T.A.-102: The melody here emulates a radio station jingle, though the song is a little more complex than that; CTA-102 is a quasar, a bright celestial body that happens to be a source of radio waves, that some believed to be evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life. Electronic oscillators simulate the sound of extraterrestrial transmissions, and the song concludes with incoherent alien babble as the crew aboard a UFO happens to catch the signal of the song being broadcast. This is one of those songs where the experimental elements (the oscillators and sound effects) are detrimental. C.T.A.-102 isn’t as rewarding a song as it is a sonic experiment. RATING: 6/10

Renaissance Fair: Crosby and McGuinn team up for this psychedelia-tinged folk number; a hazy sketch of the titular renaissance fair (an outdoor gathering recreating the sights and sounds of the Rennaisance era). The constant refrain of “I think that maybe I’m dreaming” blurs the line between re-enactment and reality. The glorification of the Renaissance era with its “cinnamon and spices” and “kaleidoscope of colours” reflects a desire to return to a simpler time—a rejection of the modern era. The arrangement is a bit of a missed opportunity; a bit of Renaissance-era instrumentation could’ve achieved a much more vivid evocation of the period. RATING: 7.5/10

Time Between: A country song, foreshadowing the group’s transition into a country rock at the tail end of the decade (songwriter Chris Hillman was one of the key figures in the rise of the genre). Despite this being Hillman’s first attempt at song writing, the bouncy tune boasts single-worthy melodies. RATING: 7.5/10

Everybody’s Been Burned: Solemn, sensitive David Crosby at his finest. The rising chromatic guitar picking creates a sombre atmosphere that breaks through the dreary haze and morphs into a thing of beauty halfway through the song. It’s one of Crosby’s earliest compositions, dating back to 1962, and was originally envisioned as a torch song (a mournful lament of lost love). RATING: 8.5/10

Thoughts and Words: This song is a melodic precursor to George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. The chorus presents a sudden shift to more of a rock and roll aesthetic—a similar effect can be heard on The Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride”. A backmasked sitar interlude serves as the song’s climax. RATING: 9/10

Mind Gardens: One of Crosby’s weaker offerings. This droning acoustic piece fails to establish a melody, relying instead on backmasking and psychedelic imagery for depth. Crosby reportedly fought to have the composition included on the album, believing it to be a work of art. He would continue to butt heads with the rest of the band, resulting in his eventual departure. RATING: 4/10

My Back Pages: I want to say this is an unnecessary cover. Dylan’s version is perfectly melodic—unlike some of The Byrds’ earlier Dylan covers, they don’t really have much interpretive work to do here. But it’s still one of Dylan’s best, and thus the resulting cover is a pleasure to listen to. The album gets its title from the song’s core sentiment that disassociating oneself with the protest scene represents a return to the carefree days of youth. RATING: 7/10

The Girl With No Name: Another country rock number. It’s a fun little tune, but ultimately it lacks a hook and fails to be as memorable as “Time Between”. Probably the weakest song on the album. RATING: 5.5/10

Why: The album closes out with a Crosby song, this one previously released as the B-side to “Eight Miles High”. Impressed by the music of Ravi Shankar, Crosby sought to emulate the Indian raga with this song, though unlike George Harrison, Crosby chose not to implement traditional Indian instrumentation in the recording of the track. Originally, the song was meant to describe Crosby’s mother’s authoritativeness: “Keep saying no to me since I was a baby.” The idea was rejected, and the song was reshaped to be about a young girl restrained by her overbearing mother. The song skilfully weaves rock together with raga. Towards the end of the song, Crosby delivers one of the most powerful lyrics on the album: “Say it’s a dead old world, dull and unforgiving / I don’t know where you live, but you’re not living.” All in all, an excellent album closer. RATING: 8.5/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: The album cover isn’t as striking as the cover for Fifth Dimension, though the grainy texture, which obscures the playful photo of the band, does make for an interesting image. Aesthetically, the album is best described as restrained psychedelia; though the production is daring, it never really crosses that line into wild and unhinged. When you consider how the idea of psychedelic inhibition is intrinsically linked with the notion of childhood freedom, the title takes Dylan’s notion of rejecting the seriousness of adulthood while adapting it for the psychedelic era. SCORE: 4/5

Artistic Merit: The album only contains a single cover song, and as a Bob Dylan song it isn’t that out of place on a Byrds album anyway. The rest of the songs display an artistic growth on behalf of all members of the group—the album sees the band taking a step forward both in songwriting and in studio experimentation. Didn’t I already say that the album represents the band at their creative peak? SCORE: 5/5

Flow: The album isn’t really mean to be a cohesive work. It’s varied stylistically, with influences ranging from British invasion–style pop rock to country to Indian raga. The songs are concise, and even during its weaker moments the album never truly feel like it’s losing any steam. Younger Than Yesterday is probably the most satisfying Byrds album start to finish. SCORE: 7/10

CLOSING REMARKS: The greatest of albums are the ones that stand the test of time. It speaks volumes that Younger Than Yesterday is widely regarded as one of the band’s strongest efforts nowadays. This is also one of the earliest albums to consider country rock as a musical possibility. The band’s experimentation would continue with their next album, in which they’d explore an even wider range of musical influences, but this album is just as worthy of your attention.

FINAL SCORE: 75

 

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