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Supertramp - Famous Last Words CD (album) cover




Crossover Prog

3.20 | 358 ratings

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5 stars Some of the greatest lineups in progressive music were undone in the 1980s by the personal and creative upheaval that characterized the early part of that decade. Unfortunately Supertramp was no exception. 'Famous Last Words' marked the departure of founding member Roger Hodgson and the dissolution of one of the truly memorable songwriting duos of modern music in Hodgson and Rick Davies. The split would leave Davies as the lone original member as well as the de facto (and legal) steward of the band's future direction. Hodgson would launch a solo career. Neither would achieve the kind of commercial or creative success that Supertramp did in the 1970s.

I got into Supertramp with 'Even in the Quietest Moments' and quickly discovered the much more dazzling 'Crime of the Century'. When 'Breakfast in America' released in 1979 I was swept up with the millions of other who gravitated to the band's unique blend of jazz, pop, nostalgia and brilliant songwriting as the album went quadrillion²-platinum or whatever it ended up selling. Three years later I still played the record regularly and several of the hits were still on the radio, but since the band didn't tour very heavily across the heart of America they weren't on my radar all that much.

Then out of nowhere comes "?famous last words?", and of course my curiosity was piqued. What had the boys come up with this time? Well, not more of the same, I can assure you of that. There is plenty of symbolism in this album that signals the pending breakup, and the overall mood is rather resigned and depressing. First is the cover itself, a picture of a circus performer on a tightrope looking nervously over his shoulder as an ominous hand reaches out to sever the rope with a huge pair of scissors. The album title suggests Hodgson and Davies knew people like me would be writing wistful memorials long after the band itself was no more. The splitting of songwriting credits to clearly distinguish between those of Hodgson and those of Davies was a first for the band; on previous albums, the credits were always shared in one way or another. The inside liner notes even have the lyrics color-coded to distinguish between the two writers. Inside the sleeve a picture of the band shows the five members, none smiling, and all tip-toeing nervously across their separate tightropes. And the lyrics nearly all reflect on watershed points within personal relationships in one way or another. There was no question whatsoever that this was the swan song for Supertramp, and that the breakup was not all smiles and hugs.

If you can get past the mildly depressing nature of the packaging though, there is actually some pretty good music here. Perhaps also symbolic, the track list both begins and ends with songs written by Hodgson. And knowing Hodgson's flair for drama, I think it's also intentional that the album begins on a pensive high note with "Crazy":

"Here's little song to make you feel good, put a little light in your day; these are crazy times, and it's all been getting pretty serious. Here's a little song to make you feel right, send the blues away; well it's a crazy game, tell me who's to blame ? I'm pretty curious";

And ends with the sad and melancholy "Don't Leave Me Now":

"Don't leave me now, leave me holding an empty heart. As the curtains start to fall? all alone in this crazy world, when I'm old and cold and grey and time is gone".

Pain is just a reminder that you're alive, I suppose.

"Crazy" is a typical opening number for the band, a peppy tempo with lots of piano, saxophone highlights and a short sax solo all wrapped up in Hodgson's slightly-mad-Englishman vocals, with complementary backing by Davies. In keeping with the trend in some of the band's other albums, the presence of Hodgson's guitar is secondary to the keyboards.

Davies wrote "Put on Your Old Brown Shoes", a kind of retro jazzy/blues number with what sounds like alto sax and an almost ragtime vibe to the piano. The Wilson sisters of Heart provide backing vocals, and overall this is not unlike some of the music on their 'Private Auditions' album of the same period. The lyrics are in keeping with the general breakup theme of the album, accented by a nice piano/sax extended instrumental passage in the middle of the song:

"You and me, we're helpless can't you see ? we've got to get away, get away. Got to move on, catch the next train and we'll be gone;

And the rest of our lives we'll be free".

Hodgson serves up one of his glossy pure-pop tunes with "It's Raining Again", which turned out to be another huge hit for the band. This is one of those songs you either love or hate, and I choose to love it. Like "Dreamer" or "The Logical Song" these are bitingly sarcastic lyrics set to an upbeat, almost danceable rhythm, and some of the most haunting saxophone work John Helliwell has ever done:

"It's raining again, you know it's hard to pretend. Oh no, it's raining again, too bad I'm losing a friend".

The children's chorus ending of nursery rhyme lyrics is a bit cheesy and self-indulgent on Hodgson's part, but clearly the guy was dealing with some pretty raw emotions at the time and this is how he often expressed those feelings in his music. The song contains one of the most striking lyrical passages Hodgson ever put on paper, in my opinion:

"You're old enough some people say, to read the signs and walk away. It's only time that heals the pain, and makes the sun come out again".

I still can't hear that passage even today without blinking back a few tears.

I personally think that "Bonnie" is a highly symbolic work by Davies to describe the intensely personal relationship between him and Hodgson. The lyrics read like the story of an obsessed fan of an old-time movie star who is longing to get closer to her, but I believe it also describes how Davies may have felt about Hodgson at one time.

Hodgson follows that one with the most achingly personal lament he ever penned ? "Know Who You Are". This is a mostly acoustic number with Hodgson strumming guitar and singing in a halting, pensive mood, and I can't listen to it without feeling like a gawking intruder into an intensely personal moment for Hodgson:

"Know who you are? there's a new song inside you. Weep if you can? let the tears fall behind you".

Davies counters with another retro-sounding light jazzy number, "My Kind of Lady". By now the stylistically different directions Hodgson and Davies were pursuing was becoming apparent. For me this is the weakest track on the album, with 50's-sounding backing vocals, rather tepid piano, and overall just a bit of unenthusiastic, plodding tempo. Perhaps part of the reason it fell flat was that neither Hodgson nor Davies were very enthusiastic about recording it.

This sets up one of the band's strongest album finishes though, with the remaining three tracks all being complex and highly memorable. Hodgson's "C'est le bon" is something of an autobiography, with gorgeous acoustic guitar accented by clarinet while Hodgson chants about having a heart full of music that just has to get out, regardless of the consequences. The Wilson sisters add touching backing vocals to give the song a timeless feel, making it one of the great forgotten Supertramp classics.

Davies' strongest work follows his weakest one with the horn-driven "Waiting So Long". Here again the listener cannot escape the tension in the band, with lyrics that are both biting and sad: "Did you get all you want? Did we see the whole show? So where's all the fun that we used to know? As the memories fade way out of view, I'd love those old days to come back to you". Hodgson offers his strongest guitar work on the album, heavy and brooding but full of life at the same time.

The album closes with the final emotional cry from Hodgson, the deeply resigned soul- sigh in "Don't Leave Me Now". Musically this is nothing new from the band ? melodic and beautiful piano and thoughtful saxophone, very little guitar, and the little-known Claire Diament with some very pleasant backing vocals. But the message is clear in the lyrics, and with the end of the album also comes the end of the band, at least as we all knew and loved them:

"Don't leave me now, leave me out with nowhere to go. As the shadows start to fall ?

Don't leave me now".

In some ways I see this album as a soundtrack to the end of an age, and a symbol of the much broader dissolution of a decade of wonderful music, incredible artistic creativity, and pleasant memories. It's a stark contrast to the band's 'Breakfast in America' peak, but also an incredibly poignant and personal look inside the souls of one of the great musical icons of an eclectic and artistic generation.

It pains me to listen to this album, especially today as those of us who came out of that generation and those times are now adults, and we are just expected to deal with some of the same kinds of heavy, somber emotions and complex relationships that once seemed so simple and straightforward. But it is also a reminder that once you get past all the extraneous trappings, life is really all about our relationships with each other. Hodgson and Davies understood that, probably still do today. And I cherish the many songs where they expressed this and shared their emotions with us willing listeners. I am confident I am a better man for it. Hopefully those who listen to this music today and contemplate all the layers of meaning it holds for our personal interactions will someday feel the same way.


ClemofNazareth | 5/5 |


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