Review Summary: He writes the songs that make the whole world sing, he write the songs of love and spec.....oh wait. Nevermind.
Ah yes, the '70's. The turbulent '60's coming to a close, Watergate bumming the nation out, Vietnam raging on, gas shortages, hyper inflation. And all that rock music racket from those damn hippies a decade before. The country was the same in many respects, but changed in many others. And just like The Eagles would say in song, some just wanted a "peaceful, easy feeling" after all the turmoil of the recent past. Finally, as they say, standing on the ground.
So enter the age of the soft spoken singer/ songwriter. James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Carly Simon, The Eagles and their brand of soft rock. Kenny Rogers never sounded better. And of course the king of the softer side of '70's pop, Barry Manilow. Manilow didn't do so much as sling a guitar or even touch on the problems of the recent past as some of his contemporaries. No, Manilow performed love songs and nothing but. Sometimes they were sad, sometimes they were joyous, often they were bland. But he was a seasoned entertainer and energetic live performer and that was enough for millions. And if you were old enough to remember a simpler time when guys like Sinatra, Dean Martin, or even Pat Boone ruled the airwaves, he was right up your alley.
But time passes and leaves entertainers like Manilow squarely in that past, so what to do? Well, go back in time, of course. And offer a "new" older generation something to look back on and smile about while it goes through some tough times of its own. Having tackled the "greatest" songs of the '50's, 60's, and 70's on record in the last few years, well, you guessed it, to the surprise of no one his very newest release continues the trend with The Greatest Songs Of The Eighties
Of course these aren't really the greatest songs of the 80's. You won't find a Paul Westerburg, REM, or Bruce Springsteen song in the lot of them. But nor would you find any of that sort of thing in Manilow's previous "decades" albums. But what you will find are the aforementioned love songs, and nothing but. Ah yes, the 80's. A simpler, gentler time. "It's morning in America." Hmm...I guess a nice pair of rose colored glasses go a long way for some.
The old Kenny Rogers / Dolly Parton duet Islands In The Stream
gets things started in peppy fashion with Reba McEntire filling Dolly's sizable bra on this track, and its a serviceable enough effort that shows some promise for things to come as we find Barry in fine voice and harmonizing comfortably with his country music cohort. But duets weren't really Barry's calling card as a singer way back when, and its the last time he will be accompanied by another vocalist on any of these tracks. Which might have helped lift some out of the malaise they sometimes fall into.
Not that the malaise is so bad here. In fact its on those tracks which find Manilow sounding the bluest which actually stand out as a welcome surprise. Unlike his previous decades albums, The Greatest Songs Of The Eighties
doesn't tamper with arrangements or instrumentation in large part beyond using heavier orchestration and relying more on the piano in the final mix. Melody, tempo, and the mood of songs such as Stevie Wonder's I Just Called To Say I Love You
, the oft covered Have I Told You Lately That I Love You
, and the Christopher Cross ballad Arthur's Theme
remain achingly close to the originals, and they make you wish a few of the songs chosen for this collection were a little more on the adventurous side. Ah...but here comes that welcome malaise.
Whether it's because Barry is 65 years old and you're bound to sound a little tired at that age, or years and experience just give you a different perspective then when you are young, Manilow, whether intentional or not, sinks deep into the sadness of several of these songs and pulls out true emotional weight. Songs such as the already sad Phil Collins track Against All Odds
and Cindy Lauper's melancholy Time After Time
become that much more so as Manilow delivers his vocals with a sense of finality which borders on the tragic. Barry's voice while emotive has never been broad in range, and his somewhat monotone delivery here conveys an emptiness which escaped these songs in their original versions. Where the love lorn could listen to these songs before and fill in the cracks with some hope or at least exorcise the demons of a broken heart, the way Manilow interprets them puts a nail in the coffin rather then the vision of a new love around the corner. When he sings "you coming back to me is against all odds but its a chance I'll have to take" it doesn't come across as a bold and brave statement as in the Collins original, but a pathetic stab at useless false hope. And on the old WHAM classic Careless Whisper
when he sings "I'm never gonna dance again" you believe him 100%. In fact he sounds like a man who is about to stick his head in an oven, much less get up and dance. Even Journey's Open Arms
comes across as more of a distant dream then anything real as Barry sings "We sailed on together / we drifted apart / and here you are by my side." "Yeah right," the listener might think. In your wildest fantasy.
So as it turns out these songs meant to be "easy listening" and soothing somehow are also tempered with a sort of wisdom of age vibe that lifts the album to something a little more worthwhile then taking a ride down memory lane. And to Barry Manilow's credit he is in fine voice and gives the more keen listener something to not just to listen to, but listen for
on several of these tracks. A dark heart, a prevailing sadness. And it works to offset the more mundane tunes on the album. As Elton John once sang, "Sad songs they say so much." And on The Greatest Songs Of The Eighties
it is indeed the saddest which say the most. At least for those old timers who are willing to take off the rose colored glasses for awhile.