The cover photo is the biggest surprise. Eschewing the usual Zap Comix-inspired illustration, the world’s most tenacious hippie survivors have chosen to pose — in slick suits of John Travolta white — for a very contemporary, very artsy, airbrushed soft-focus portrait. But don’t let the packaging fool you. Go to Heaven is mainly more of the same uninspired fluff that’s become the Grateful Dead’s recorded stock in trade.
The Dead move from Bob Weir and John Barlow’s maundering (“Lost Sailor”) and Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s meandering (“Althea”) to torrid attempts at funk (“Feel like a Stranger”) with nary a fresh melody or original lick. Even a successful song like the infectious rocker, “Alabama Getaway” (which does its job with an admirable brevity that might have saved a few of the album’s terminally long-winded compositions), seems to lack weight. There’s no sense of urgency or honesty here, and without these two qualities, rock & roll remains vacuous, no matter how charming.
But there are two positive signs: “Far from Me” and “Easy to Love You,” both primarily the work of keyboardist Brent Mydland. Mydland sings with the bourbon softness of Michael McDonald and crafts simple, straightforward pop compositions that allow the rest of the band to play tightly and impressively within definite musical boundaries. These tunes offer ample proof that the Grateful Dead can succeed on vinyl as well as they do in concert. More Mydland would seem a good idea in the future.