Axis: Bold as Love, Jimi Hendrix's second studio album, may be the most underloved record ever made by a rock god. Forty years after his death in September 1970, many fans still only talk about the guitarist's first and third LPs: Are You Experienced?, his historic 1967 debut with the Jimi Hendrix Experience — his trio with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell — and the 1968 masterpiece, Electric Ladyland. In comparison, Axis has remained hidden in plain sight — overshadowed by the psychedelic shock attack of Experienced? and the pictorial-guitar orchestrations on Ladyland — since its original release in Britain in December 1967 and in America in January 1968.
But Axis is Hendrix's most concisely musical album, something that comes through loud and very clear — again — in a close listen to the new vinyl edition (Experience Hendrix/Legacy), part of the Hendrix estate's relaunch of the guitarist's catalog through Sony Music. Axis was made in a blur, mostly in the fall of '67, and it shows in spots. "Little Miss Lover" is a not-so-"Foxey Lady," evidence of the rush to get a second record done in time for Christmas giving. But the album is also rich in details that lurk just below the roiling surface, such as the bass-end piano boom that doubles Hendrix's artillery-guitar chords in "Spanish Castle Magic" and the backwards-guitar flourishes that sprint like dancing insects across the pop bounce of "You Got Me Floatin'." This is also a vacuum-packed grandeur. "Little Wing," Hendrix's greatest love song, is less than two-and-a-half minutes of intricate rapture, the clarion ring of the celeste sparkling through Hendrix's snake's-nest runs.
The most remarkable thing about Axis, though, is the clarity of Hendrix's vulnerability, its self-portrait of the artist in mid-whirl, under the weight and consequences of an overnight and overwhelming success. In September 1966, Hendrix arrived in Britain — black, American and unknown, a refugee of the acid-coffeehouse and chitlin-club circuits. Two albums later, there is still lingering disbelief. "Aw, shucks, if my daddy could see me now," Hendrix sings, with a genial growl, in the spaced-jazz shuffle "Up From the Skies." There is also the confrontational ego of "If 6 Was 9." But much of his reflection on Axis is about how easy it is go from having nothing to everything and back again. The charging glee of "Wait Until Tomorrow" is deceptive; Hendrix's last verse ends with a gunshot and no tomorrow at all. In the hit-single pith of "Castles Made of Sand," the slippery grace of Hendrix's guitar work echoes the spinning in his deep-blues sigh from true love to heartbreak, then death — but finally, to magic.
"Uneven in quality" — that is how Rolling Stone summed up Axis: Bold as Love in an April 1968 review. The album was actually a frank vivid turbulence, one that still sounds new, rich and equal, in its way, to the history Hendrix made on Are You Experienced? and Electric Ladyland. Axis has never been out of print. It still awaits true discovery.