On the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun the studio with its production work dissolves into live performance, the carefully crafted is thrown together with the casually tossed off, and the results are spliced together. The end product is one of the finest albums to come out of San Francisco, a personal statement of the rock aesthetic on a level with the Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxters. To be sure, the album has its weak points, but as a total work it is remarkably successful, especially when compared to the first Dead album.
The first side of Anthem of the Sun is a masterpiece of rock, “That’s It for the Other One” and “New Potatoes Caboose” being particularly noteworthy. The main theme of “Other One” is an eminently memorable quasi-county melody that starts right off with the tasteful guitar of Garcia that dominates the record; a second movement starts the confusion between live and studio (nice stereo production work here), fading into a restatement of the main theme; then there is some beautiful musique concrete leading into “Caboose.” Already there is evident carefully arranged vocal work, a departure from the Dead’s previous release. The end of “Caboose” is a driving solo by Garcia that builds into structured frenzy thanks to Lesh’s bass, the drums of Hart and Kreutzmann, and especially Garcia’s masterful playing. Garcia is that rarity among rock guitarists, a thoughtful phraser who logically constructs his solos in a manner not unlike a capable jazz musician. Together Lesh, Weir and Garcia (along with McKernan’s fat globs of organ) produce a complex, tight sound that stands with the best hard rock around.
Kazoos open “Alligator,” which is that kind of song, hardly dead serious. But it includes another fine Gacia solo; Lesh shows here as elsewhere that he is a fine bass player, while Hart and Kreutzmann work together to form one of the most powerful (and inventive) percussion units in rock. With “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)” we are confronted with the album’s most curious track, which ranges from a white-imitation blues riff vamp-until-ready to 60-cycle hum and microphone feedback. The vocal sounds like Danny Kalb (poor in other words), but this in fact is the main consistent problem with the album: the vocals. Often the voices are muddy and on blues none of the Dead sound particularly persuasive; but this is a minor quibble when so much else is right on this album. The mixture of electronic and serious music achieved by Edgar Varese on “Deserts” stands as one of the most impressive achievements in this area; on their own terms the Dead have achieved a comparable blend of electronic and electric music. For this reason alone Anthem of the Sun is an extraordinary event. It’s been over a year since the first Dead album. It was worth waiting.