[29 August 2012]
Composer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield is an artist like no other. As one of the pioneers of DIY instrumental recording (in which a person overdubs successive timbres over melodic foundations, creating something similar to a musical jigsaw puzzle), as well as a well-respected pop songwriter, he’s spent the past 40 years reinventing himself and taking his audience to new places. While there have been plenty of compilations in the past, they’ve never really represented effectively the full scope of this dichotomy. Fortunately, with Two Sides: The Very Best of Mike Oldfield (compiled by Oldfield), fans and newcomers alike can revel in the unique, influential, and [mostly] enjoyable work of a brilliant musician.
Even if you’ve never heard of Oldfield by name, you’ve no doubt heard some of his music. His first release, the two-part, fifty minute Tubular Bells, sold millions of copies, which helped launch Richard Branson’s fledgling Virgin Records label. In addition, the opening of “Tubular Bells: Part One” was made famous in 1973 as the theme to what is often considered the scariest film of all time, The Exorcist. Of course, there is much more to Tubular Bells than those opening minutes, and similarly, there is much more to Oldfield than his initial stroke of genius.
As a self-taught musician and composer, his work has extended across many genres, “from folk and progressive rock to jazz, electronic, ambient, new age, world, pop, and even disco.” Needless to say, his releases have influenced countless other artists (including me) and popularized entire genres. As he puts it, “All I want to express with my music is my feelings. I think it’s the purpose. To show images, landscapes, love, hate, fury.”
Of Two Sides, Oldfield says:
This collection is my own personal choice of what I consider to be my best instrumental and songwriting works to date. These tracks may or may not have been my most critically or commercially successful at the time, but in my heart of hearts and in my judgement, they represent the closest I have come to my best creativity.
The first disc, which is sequenced to represent “his more esoteric, experimental side,” logically begins with an abridged version of “Tubular Bells”. As you can probably tell, I absolutely adore it, so its inclusion is a welcomed way to start the collection. Afterward, listeners are treated to more instrumental pieces, including a selection from Oldfield’s ethereal third release, Ommadawn, as well as the hyperactive, electronic frenzy of “Crisis”, the classical, Middle Eastern flow of “The Lake”, and the reserved yet experimental two-part “Amarok”. There’s also “Tubular Bells, Pt. 2: Sentinel”, which interweaves familiar themes into new ideas. “Ascension” is wonderfully atmospheric and emotive, while “The Tempest” is strikingly regal due to its luscious string arrangements. All in all, the first disc is superb representation of Oldfield’s exceptional skills as a composer.
Disc two, which captures his “best loved tracks and hit singles,” reveals an entirely different side to Oldfield’s musical prowess. Like Alan Parsons and Arjen Anthony Lucassen (Ayreon), after releasing his avant-garde records, Oldfield ventured into writing pop/rock songs for other vocalists to sing. One of his biggest songs, “Family Man” (which was sung by Maggie Reilly and covered by Hall & Oates), appears here, as does the romantically regretful “To France”. There’s also the schizophrenic synth of “Files Miles Out”, the pleasant warmth of “Moonlight Shadow”, and the hard rock gruff of “Shadow on the Wall”. Several more instrumentals appear, too, including the inspirational and melodically engaging “The Song of the Sun” and “The Doges Palace”. The collection ends with “On My Heart”, an operatic, sublime synthesis of falsetto harmonies, delicate strings, and eclectic percussion.
While Two Sides is definitely named appropriately, one of those sides is much more interesting and listenable than the other. Oldfield is unquestionably incredible as an arranger of affective, grandiose, and dynamic compositions; however, his songwriting is far from intriguing or memorable. Honestly, just about every pop/rock track on the record is embarrassingly dated, cheesy, and odd. Granted no one writes and produces commercial material like Oldfield, but perhaps that’s because no one ever wanted to. Still, the juxtaposition of these two wildly different approaches to music really shows how diverse Oldfield was, and that fact alone is enough to make him a remarkable artist.
Two Sides: The Very Best of Mike Oldfield is a fantastic collection not because its contents is perfect, but because it does justice to its creator’s amazing range. Although his work can sometimes be repetitive, it is still commendable for being utterly distinctive. Oldfield was a pioneer and a visionary, and while many have followed in his footsteps, no one has even been able to match what he does with sound. As for his songwriting, well, it’s a novelty, to say the least, and there are worthwhile moments here and there that make up for the cringe-worthiness of the majority. In the end, the retrospective is a sufficient way to celebrate a one-of-a-kind artist, and fans couldn’t really ask for more than that.