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Supertramp - Breakfast In America CD (album) cover




Crossover Prog

3.95 | 709 ratings

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5 stars I think if this album suffers from anything, it is for being too good. There are some who shun massively popular music simply as a matter of course. I don’t think that’s the issue with Breakfast in America. With this album the problem is more the 20 quadrillion or so number of times most of the songs have been played on the radio, at social events, or appeared as period references on film or television. Most of the songs on this album are integral icons in our modern landscape.

Roger Hodgson and crew had relocated from England to Los Angeles shortly before this album was recorded, and were clearly impacted by the major cultural shift (hell, most of us who live in America are even impacted by the cultural shift of Los Angeles). In addition, the 70s were coming to a close and the na´ve innocence of that time was being supplanted by a hairy-chested and shallow machismo scene being played out between socially-active men and their conquests (er., “companions”). Hodgson and Rick Davies expanded on both of these themes with their usual wry sense of humor and sarcasm, but all the while keeping at the forefront a charmingly unaffected and upbeat attitude. The combination of those themes that unique combination of personalities and attitudes, and some damn fine musical sensibilities, made for a truly memorable album. Perhaps even too memorable.

The album kicks off with the usual suspects picking up right where Even in the Quietest Moments left off – Rick Davies’ captivating work on the Wurlitzer piano; plenty of horns and woodwinds, in this instance saxophone and what might be a very faint flute; and both Hodgson and Davies with their butch guy/fluff guy one-two vocal punch. Great stuff! The boys are describing their adjustment to the cold and impersonal environ of Tinseltown -

“Ain’t nothing new in my life today, I’m tired of walking from place to place;

I’ve yet to come across a friendly face, and now the words sound familiar, as them slam the door - ’you’re not what we’re looking for.’”

But like I said this band seems to be irrepressibly upbeat, so even here the outgoing message for the song becomes –

“So keep your chin up boy, forget the pain - I know you’ll make it if you try again.

There’s no use in quitting when the world is waiting for you”.

And so on with the show! What follows is nothing short of a musical assault of intensely gorgeous art encased on the shell of rock (if you want to call it ‘rock’) music, beginning with the first and biggest of four hit singles off the album, “The Logical Song”. The lyrics here, much like “School” from Crime of the Century, are a direct communication between the band and the soul of every teenager in hearing range. Any kid alive in 1979 probably has these lyrics permanently committed to memory, either because they identified with the very personal message, or because they couldn’t escape the radio barrage of the song in heavy rotation. Musically the band employs at least two keyboards here, the familiar piano but also pretty heavy on a harmonic organ piece. In addition, the liberal use of saxophone is a bit in contrast with the band’s tendency to use brass selectively, but I must say that hear it definitely adds am edginess to the music. So part of the irony of this song was that it was a mega-hit in 1979 with teens and adults alike, but I’m not sure either group knew what they were listening to. The upbeat tempo made this almost danceable, but in fact this is some angst-ridden lamenting on the verge of a breakdown by a grown man struggling to come to grips with his own sense of being. Brilliant stuff!

“Goodbye Stranger” has some of the most intriguing keyboard work on the album, highly repetitive but very nice progressions that are almost hidden and disguised as a pop song. The use of whistling adds to the cavalier theme here, a character sketch of a ‘player’ in the purest sense of the word who is casually tossing insincere comments over his shoulder on his way out the door after a one-night stand. I don’t know where these guys picked up some theater experience, but it’s especially on songs like this one that aspect of their art really shows through. Hodgson cuts loose with some fine guitar work at the end of this one. Despite their label as an ‘art rock’ band, the emphasis is clearly more on the ‘art’ than the ‘rock’, as the presence of the guitar is secondary to the rest of the instrumentation throughout most of the album.

“Breakfast in America” is one of the very few instances in progressive (or popular) music where a tuba is employed as a feature instrument (there they go with more of that theatrical charm again). It is the perfect complement to the choppy keyboards and sparse drum/bass rhythm (and I’m not sure what the woodwind is here – clarinet?). The theme here is a bit of an amalgamation of the first three combined –

“Take a jumbo cross the water - like to see America. See the girls in California - I’m hoping it’s going to come true, but there’s not a lot I can do”

Hodgson brings back his guitar for “Oh Darling”, but the emphasis is still on the twin keyboards. This is a short love song, almost out of place with the building rant the rest of the album represents, but it makes for a quiet interlude before the ranting starts up again.

Which of course doesn’t take long. “Take the Long Way Home” should really have been the closing track for the album, but – oh well. The theme here is one that can really wrap itself around you psyche and squeeze of you’re not careful. It’s all about unfilled dreams, the monotony of the day-to-day, and that innate desire for a little bit of respect. Soul-wrenching stuff, wrapped in the guise of a slightly poppish piano and harmonica ditty, and I think completely misunderstood by most of those who sang along to it twenty-seven years ago:

“Does it feel that you life’s become a catastrophe? Oh, it has to be for you to grow, boy.

When you look through the years and see what you could have been oh, what you might have been, if you’d had more time.

So, when the day comes to settle down, who’s to blame if you’re not around?

You took the long way home”.

“Lord is it Mine” is another short diversion into self-indulgent pity, but once again the piano work is superb and the vocals drip with emotion.

I’m not sure if there’s a coherent message in “Just Another Nervous Wreck”, and this is the weakest track here, although considering the high quality of the rest of the album, that’s not bad company. Hodgson has some nice licks on guitar in the middle here, and also in the closing. Otherwise this sounds more like a show tune than it does a progressive work.

“Casual Conversations” is Randy Newman meets Warren Zevon with a bit of Harry Nilsson thrown in over Billy Joel. So you get the idea – simple piano, solo vocals, introspective and sad.

In some respects the best is saved for last, as “Child of Vision” combines all the best features of the album into a single track. That said, I would have liked to seen this switched in the track order with “Take the Long Way Home” as it would have made the album flow a bit better lyrically, but this is a minor point. The piano work here is the best on the album, a bit choppy bit highly expressive and augmented well by the pulsating and repetitive organ and an almost melodic bass line. The extended piano solo in the middle is something the band has been known to do in concert, but frankly I think fans would have been well-served to hear more of this on studio albums. Interestingly, it wasn’t until near the end with Famous Last Words that we started to here more of this type of instrumental work. I’m ranted long and often about my distaste for the fadeout ending, but here it actually works, with the saxophone coming in the augment the piano and providing a kind of mournful yet hopeful feel as they both fade to black. Very tastefully done.

Breakfast in America may have been the commercial peak of the band’s career, and it was definitely a very solid album. I vacillate between four and five stars for this one because to me an album only deserves five stars if at the end of hearing it you’re either sitting in stunned silence, or ready to make a major life change. It’s a pretty high bar, but it works for me. I think this album requires a slight expansion of that line to include albums that simply cause you to applaud the honest and straightforward effort of the artists who offered it. That fits here – five stars.


ClemofNazareth | 5/5 |


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