Review Summary: McLean's brilliant magnum-opus
Don McLean's "American Pie" is a truly American album from the very start. Beginning with the opening chords of the now-legendary title track, one could understand the influence this brilliant record has had on popular music. Released in 1972, it instantly shot to #1 on the charts, making the 26 year-old McLean a household name. Its influence remains, and the title track is now considered to be an American anthem.
Most people are already familiar with the classic eight-minute opus known as "American Pie". It recounts the tragic 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, as well as the aftermath of the event. Much of the track is autobiographical, alluding to McLean's youth as a paperboy. Although many of the song's lyrics are up for interpretation, it is clear that it focuses primarily on the vast changes in popular culture during the 1960s. Some consider the lyrics to be a metaphor for the broad upheavals in society at the time, which is a very popular interpretation. However, the song remains a staple of American music and has had a lasting influence on society and popular culture.
"Till Tomorrow" is a song of lost love, perhaps describing two individuals finding that they are unable to maintain a stable and constant relationship. Relationships are certainly a common theme on the album, and many different aspects of them are examined. As with a number of songs on the record, the lyrics could be interpreted in a variety of ways. It features McLean's acoustic playing accompanied by a small section of strings to liven the music. Very nice.
This is followed by a minor hit for McLean, "Vincent". Hence the title, the sorrowful track was written as a tribute to Vincent van Gogh. It was conceived after McLean read a book by van Gogh's brother, describing how he had the same illness as his brother. McLean had heard all his life that van Gogh cut his ear off due to his insanity, but believed that he merely had an illness which made him irrational. Finding it to be an interesting topic to write about, he composed "Vincent", a moving acoustic track describing the shameful ways in which the public misunderstood van Gogh. Between the lines, he references many of the painter's best known works, particularly "Starry, Starry Night".
The first side of the original LP is concluded with "Crossroads", a song written for the piano, including a number of Biblical references. The lyrics seem to describe the struggle with oneself and the need for companionship. It's a remarkably beautiful song, maintaining the very warm tone found throughout the record.
Side two opens with "Winterwood", another acoustic number. Don McLean has said that he was inspired to write the song while driving along during winter and seeing birds sitting on a tree. They appeared to look like leaves, hence the lyric "birds like leaves on winterwood". A simple reflection of nature, "Winterwood" is a very pleasant track.
This is followed with the album's most sorrowful number, "Empty Chairs". Describing heartbreak, McLean recounts one's initial feelings after being left by his lover. Some nice guitar-work on this tune.
Then we have "Everybody Loves Me, Baby", a sarcastic song about an arrogant individual who essentially has everything and all the power in the world, yet cannot get the woman he wants. Definitely one of the more fun tracks on the album, along with title track, of course.
"Sister Fatima" is a return to the acoustic songs, with lyrics that could be interpreted in any number of ways. It features perhaps some of McLean's best guitar-work and a lovely melody.
The liveliness of the last track is quickly diminished with "The Grave". Appropriately titled, this number describes a dream of McLean's involving the death of a soldier. He figured that a soldier in a trench is essentially in his own grave, thus writing the song to describe these frightening circumstances.
To close the album, McLean plays a traditional number entitled "Babylon" which was written in the Warsaw ghetto in the 1930s. It serves as a peaceful closure to an exquisite record.
"American Pie" was written to serve as a reflection of its times, illustrating the vibrant American experience of the mid-twentieth century, including several religious overtones and songs of heartbreak. Its warm, mellow tone acts as a reflection of its time, as well as a musical counterpart to some of McLean's most poetic lyrics. It really is quite a consistent listen, with no oddballs anywhere on the record. It's primarily acoustic with very sparse instrumentation, much like Carole King's "Tapestry", which was released the same year. However, all of the vocals and instruments are impeccably performed and are a joy to listen to. All in all, "American Pie" is a beautiful album showcasing many very memorable melodies, none of which should be missed.