“The record the world’s been waiting for,” reads an ad for Spirits Having Flown, and that’s not just hype, since the Bee Gees’ new album represents a deliberate attempt to fashion a “global” pop. Instead of extending the airy pop-disco of Saturday Night Fever, the Brothers Gibb have consolidated several styles, only one of which is disco, to make slower, more elaborate music. Miami Blue-Eyed Soul Meets Europop in Ecumenical Heaven might be an apt subtitle. Though impressively produced, Spirits Having Flown isn’t nearly as powerful as the crux of Saturday Night Fever, and its failures suggest that the group’s brilliant fusion of adolescent love songs and disco for the 1977 soundtrack LP was at least partly accidental.
From the beginning, the Bee Gees’ mating of pop and R&B was shaky. True, the key cuts on the transitional Main Course, for which producer Arif Mardin taught the trio the rhythmic basics, were landmarks. But the following disc, Children of the World, on which the Gibbs and coproducers Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson toughened up the style, was less satisfying. There, the effort seemed forced, and the combination of harder rhythms and a much grainier sound created an abrasively shrill and somewhat cheesy blue-eyed soul that redeemed itself only once, in the poppers-in-the-fun-house smash, “You Should Be Dancing.” Coming after this letdown album, the gorgeous and surprising Saturday Night Fever songs (from the same production team) elegantly underlined both the strength and delicacy of the special chemistry. These made-to-order movie tunes had such a magical flow and simplicity that, in one stroke, a universal dance music was born. Not since the heyday of Glenn Miller, forty years earlier, had the dreamy and aggressive impulses of pop meshed so seamlessly to stamp an era.
On Spirits Having Flown, not a single composition has the ethereal propulsion of “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever” or “More than a Woman.” “Tragedy,” the new record’s fastest dance number, is a mini melodrama that gallops along on a bed of synthesized lava, with a chorus of bleating seraphs cleaved midway by a thunderbolt. While the gimmickry is clever and the tune irresistible, the whole thing’s a bit too self-conscious to take off. The other two danceable cuts — “Search, Find” (a milder but stirring echo of “You Should Be Dancing”) and “Love You inside Out” — lack hard-core disco momentum. “Too Much Heaven,” Spirits Having Flown‘s “How Deep Is Your Love,” sets one of the group’s most glamorous melodies against a cumulus of strings and a ticking Latin beat. Though as delicious as strawberry ice cream, the song misses the aching intimacy of its forerunner, and the message (“Nobody gets too much love anymore”) rings like an official proclamation. To strengthen this impression of celestial omnipotence, when the Bee Gees lip-synced “Too Much Heaven” on the recent TV benefit for UNICEF, they were haloed in soft focus like blissed-out angels just back from a meeting with God.
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This album’s weaknesses are synonymous with the Gibbs’ pseudodeific, megastar self-conception. Most of the songs are sung with perfect pitch, but the trio’s piercing collective falsetto (built around Barry’s lead vocals) is so relentless that the few moments in which the voices drop to their natural register come as a relief. The Four Seasons, alas, and not Smokey Robinson are the prototype for such an unearthly style: shrill, stiff, mechanical yowls that generate tension yet aren’t expressive enough to carry an entire LP. This metallic shriek was made appealing on Main Course and Saturday Night Fever because it was softened and distanced into a floating, plaintive cry that found a workable counterbalance in a springy, clearly articulated electric bass. John Travolta’s moving portrayal of young Tony Manero and his struggle for recognition in the film also lent poignant meaning to the falsetto, which became an aural metaphor for the anxious human spirit: an attestation of innocence, a cry for help, a sob of nostalgia.
Spirits Having Flown‘s lack of a cinematic subtext also causes problems with the lyrics. The Bee Gees have always taken a rather functional approach to words, basing their choices as much on phonetics as on the literal sense of what’s being said, so that many of their lyrics scan like computer distillations of love comics. But with Saturday Night Fever, the real-life movie setting coaxed a more down-to-earth point of view, and the culmination, “Stayin’ Alive,” deservedly became a worldwide anthem. On the new record, the return to lyrical abstractions, when combined with such insistent falsettos, makes the Gibbs sound (not altogether unintentionally) like three android planetary overseers instead of fellow human beings.
Aside from the album’s melodic consistency (nine out of ten tunes have substantial hooks), its major success is in the area of production: the Bee Gees, Galuten and Richardson offer a sugary, futuristic melange of Abba-styled Europop, post-Motown R&B and Miami disco, with greater emphasis on horns and synthesizer. A duet between falsetto voices and a sputtering saxophone over a brass choir in “Stop (Think Again)” demonstrates a particularly haunting use of horns. Throughout Spirits Having Flown, the synthesizer is integrated with far more assurance than before, so that the strongest songs outstrip Abba in sophistication while maintaining the requisite Europop tone of brittle, ultraaccessible cordiality. The title track is the producers’ pièce de résistance. A mystical ballad that swells like the sea over a synthesized roar as a quasi-western movie theme is reiterated by a steel band, “Spirits (Having Flown)” carries international sci-fi/religioso pop to a decorative peak of opulence.
Along with Donna Summer and Abba, the Brothers Gibb are defining the emergent mainstream of space-age pop. The musical equivalent of such Hollywood screen extravaganzas as Star Wars and Superman, this international style giddily exalts a blind faith in technology, flaunting the artificiality while exhorting our wildest childhood fantasies of escape into toyland. The Bee Gees’ mythos — they always wanted to be bigger than the Beatles, whom they originally cloned, and now they are, commercially speaking — lends their music a messianic right, albeit a somewhat muted one. We’re not only encouraged to play with (or to try to become) futuristic toys, but to accept the Gibbs as heavenly castrati — Johnny Mathis robot voices come to soothe our hypereroticized climate with musical candy. Yet the falsettos cut two ways: even as they keen like rockets in the chill of space, their squall brings out the crybaby in all of us.
As millennial fever looms, the Bee Gees shrewdly answer our contradictory urges to rush forward and to retreat. Their soundtrack for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band represented one last pitiful attempt to get back and become the Beatles. On the UNICEF TV special, they finally got away with posing as the Fab Four’s spiritual heirs. But the global consciousness that the Gibbs conjure is far different from that of the Beatles, who embodied a non-bureaucratic world community of hippie individualists. The Bee Gees’ global village would be a junior high of androgynous, conformist goody-goodies: a world with no violence or sex, only puppy love, and every toy in creation. That’s why Spirits Having Flown is a Sunday-school heaven of eternal childhood, stringently regulated by “angels.”