The initial genius of the Byrds had to do with marrying the sensibilities of Bob Dylan and the Beatles out in sunny Southern California. Changes came quickly for the band, whose stylistic evolution could be tracked not just from album to album but from single to single. The surfeit of talent that made such accelerated growth possible also doomed the Byrds to fly apart, as visions and egos collided. Only three of the group’s five original members — guitarist Roger McGuinn, bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke — are pictured on the cover of The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and by its release, in January 1968, even Clarke was gone. Fired midway through the recording sessions, David Crosby is a spectral presence, having co-written a trio of the record’s most trenchant songs and casting angular shafts of light onto others with his otherworldly rhythm guitar and harmony vocals.
The best word to summarize The Notorious Byrd Brothers is transitional. It was also their first record to exhibit overt country leanings – by the Sixties’ end, everybody was getting back to the country, but the Byrds were there first, and on Notorious Byrd Brothers you can hear them saddling up the horses.
The album’s ethereal, fresh-scrubbed sound owes much to producer Gary Usher, the auteur behind countless Sixties surf-pop records and co-author of Beach Boys classics like “In My Room.” Burbling Moog synthesizers and purring steel guitars join in on the Byrds’ minty-clean folk-cosmic odes. Utopian idealism commingles with darker visions: Spiritual yearning is evident in songs that look to nature (“Dolphin’s Smile”), childhood (“Goin’ Back”) and the group mind (“Tribal Gathering”) for guidance. Stones in the pathway include hard drugs (“Artificial Energy” elliptically warns that speed kills) and war (“Draft Morning” peers inside the mind of a young man being shipped off to Vietnam). The reawakening of consciousness is ecstatically, psychedelically celebrated in “Natural Harmony.” The aura of a world in upheaval is caught like lightning in a jar on “Change Is Now,” with its evocation of hope and uncertainty, familiarity and daunting strangeness. Those combinations make Notorious Byrd Brothers a brilliant window onto an unforgettable place and time.