I took no notice of punk … I wasn’t even slightly interested in it and had a secret desire that our audience would feel the same way. I think punk was a youth culture that wasn’t particularly anything to do with music. It was an excuse for badly performed and executed hard rock.
— Alan Parsons, from the liner notes to I Robot
Is it unduly prejudicial to trot out such a blatantly inflammatory quote at the outset of the review? Perhaps. But it’s worth pointing out that this quote appears up-front in the liner notes to I Robot, by no means buried or even slightly couched in mitigating context. These are the words of a man confident of his place in musical history, firmly willing to put his own work against the work of his contemporaries, and unafraid to be judged.
Given enough time, just about everything will eventually be digitally remastered and lavishly reissued. There will always be hidden gems, unfairly forgotten or just plain buried, ready to be rediscovered by a new and appreciative generation. The nature of culture has become cyclical, in such a manner that even the most unloved artifacts can still be redeemed by a new audience. In this context, it’s hard to imagine a more unloved artifact than the Alan Parsons Project: about as antiseptic as rock music ever really got, restrained and rearranged to within an inch of its life, is there anything that can possibly be salvaged here?
Again, if it sounds like I’m being unduly prejudicial, keep in mind that I actually have some fairly fond memories of the Alan Parsons Project. They were never a favorite, but they were pretty good, and their Best Of is still a fairly interesting chunk of the ’70s experience (yes, much of their music was released in the ’80s, but I defy you to say it doesn’t still sound like the ’70s). But their albums? Well . . .
Alan Parsons’ claim to fame was that he was an engineer on some of the most important records of the early AOR era — most importantly, on the Beatles’ later material and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. It probably says as much about the musical climate at the time that the guy who engineered Dark Side of the Moon was eventually made into a rock star in his own right, but there you go. (And if you think that mindset is totally defunct, just try and tell yourself you wouldn’t buy a Nigel Godrich or Jim O’Rourke solo joint.) In any event, the Alan Parsons Project was always more about how the music sounded than how it felt. Or, to put it another way, how the music sounded was the way the music felt. Just as the ragged, painfully raw production of the early punk records communicated quite a bit of their emotional punch, the restrained, elegantly arranged production of ’70s prog and AOR gave the listener a great insight into the musicians’ mindsets.
Of the two Parsons’ albums in question, I Robot has aged the best, but that is only relatively speaking. As songwriters, Parsons and Eric Woolfson are good producers. Their best tracks stand out starkly against the backdrop: “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” is a fun bit of faux-disco, “Don’t Let It Show” is the kind of over-the-top epic ballad that only folks like My Chemical Romance seem unashamed to traffic in. But then, a track like “Day After Day (The Show Must Go On)” comes along — such a blatant Pink Floyd-pastiche as to be almost comical — offset by other sub-Dark Side of the Moon instrumental passages, such as the title track.
I Robot holds up well enough as en example of the group’s uniquely astringent and sterile style, but Eye In the Sky painfully wears all of its age. You probably remember the title track, it’s perhaps the group’s signature song, and definitely one of the most representative of their sound: quiet, well-heeled with a pretence of intellectualism, and, by virtue of infusing their sound with such pervasive thoughtfulness, not very interesting. The group was famous (infamous) for their use of revolving vocalists — a practice that more than anything else typified their detached methodology — but the vocals for “Eye In The Sky” are by Woolfson himself. His is the voice you probably think of when you imagine the Alan Parsons Project, and his is the voice that you imagine when you hear the robot operator on the other end of the phone.
Eye In the Sky is, oddly for the group, not actually a concept album, although it sounds as if it is (not a compliment). “Children of the Moon” and “Silence and I” just sit there, limpid ballads in the same vein as “Don’t Let It Show”, albeit with much less in the way of interest. “Psychobabble”, which would have undoubtedly been more at home on their Freud concept album, aims for the same type of energy as “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You”, but falls far short.
The best part of both albums, strangely enough, are the appended bonus tracks. Because the Alan Parsons Project put forth such a radically dictated sound, the outtakes and demos reveal a heretofore unrealized vein of spontaneity and experimentation that puts the album tracks in a
(slightly) better light. The early demo of “Breakdown” is practically a dry run for the kind of loping atmospheric breakbeat that trip-hop pioneered over a decade later; there’s a demo of “I Robot” featuring French Boules balls as percussive instruments that is, while kind of wacky, all the more interesting for it’s one-off ingenuity. Likewise, the rough mixes for tracks like “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” and “Old and Wise” carry a bit of added energy their studio counterparts do not. It’s also worth nothing that both albums contain lengthy unreleased instrumental passages featuring bits and pieces of both albums best tracks — these compositions (“The Naked Robot”, “The Naked Eye”) are also of some interest for long-time fans, even if they do tend to amplify the group’s worst tendencies.
It may seem harsh, but the music of the Alan Parsons Project just hasn’t aged very well. It’s not merely that the group was only mediocre in terms of its songwriting, but that the attitudes and methodology are so alien to modern temperaments that it is almost impossible to reexamine the music from an “objective” standpoint. Most of even the most egregious examples of ’70s excess have been eventually reclaimed: the popularity of Pink Floyd may wax and wane, but they have never really gone out of style; Electric Light Orchestra has recently been the recipient of a long-overdue critical reassessment; even the worst kind of prog excesses have been redeemed by a new generation of groups like the Mars Volta and My Morning Jacket (to say nothing of Radiohead). But the Alan Parsons Project, unfortunately, will probably never receive this kind of reevaluation. They wanted to create concept albums about robots and Edgar Allen Poe; they wanted to drain rock music of every last ounce of human vitality and vigor in order to create something of lasting musical value. Unfortunately, they misjudged rock and roll … the music will forgive any number of sins, but never a lack of passion.