Leave it to Beefheart to take selling out literally. Only he would think to do it at a time when adventurous music like John McLaughlin’s really has become commercial. Following on the heels of some of the most complex and fascinating rock records ever made — Trout Mask Replica, The Spotlight Kid and Safe As Milk — Beef-heart has begun to cannibalize his own innovations.
From the beginning, Beef-heart’s source has been pure blues. Safe As Milk was directly rooted there, though it made some offhand and surprisingly successful passes at California pop, as well. Ever since, the fount of the Captain’s wisdom has been more obscured, but the blues are there beneath the grotesqueries of Trout Mask’s most free-form moments.
Unconditionally Guaranteed takes a more direct approach. At times, as on “Laxy Music,” the songs seem like variations on Van Morrison’s simpler themes. At other moments, the reference seems to be to the semicompetent mid-Sixties’ raunch of Southern California groups like Clear Light and the Doors. Even when Beefheart does write a passable pop song, like “Sugar Bowl,” or the Byrds-like “Magic Be,” his voice isn’t capable of propelling the tune into the mass ear. It’s like establishing the Manhattan Project in order to invent the shoelace.
Because Beefheart has deserted his previous playful swipes at restructuring English, and is now writing in an only slightly far-fetched love-song style, the best moments on Unconditionally Guaranteed are provided by the band. Alex Saint Claire and Zoot Horn Rollo, the Magic Band guitarists, are as excellent as they always have been, but Art Tripp is not the sort of drummer who can easily accommodate himself to a simple 4/4 beat. He sounds clumsy, as though he wants to take the kinds of risks Beefheart’s old music used to allow him.
Captain Beefheart singing pretty, meaningless ballads is like Charlie Parker working as an organ grinder. The good Captain may be dreaming an impossible dream of chart success, but like Don Quixote, he’d be best advised to stay home, take care of business and stop making an ass of himself in public.