Guilty Pleasures review
Yes, Tales from Topographic Oceans
1972 was a good year for prog and art rock. Ziggy was the special man, Can were spoon-bending in Cologne, and the Floyd had just touched down on the dark side of the moon. Good times.
So they must have seemed in 1974, at the release of Yes' Tales from Topographic Oceans. Not just one twenty-minute song, oh no. Four. Four... except themes and motifs recurred in all of them. So... one song. One song, spanning four LP sides and eighty minutes. Based on Schastic scripture. Surely it was doomed to failure? Was it the album which killed prog?
Well, yes and no, respectively. No-one would argue that this blubbery dinosaur of a concept made evolutionary sense. But prog really became extinct with the asteroid impact of punk, itself (to break the analogy) a reaction to British economic decline. The next generation's loathing of prog - concept double-albums, ten-minute solos, elves, giant lobsters on stage, beardy fans exulting in the virtuosity of self-indulgent excess - fixed on TTO (spells in reverse?) as its concrete symbol.
I rather like it, and only partly from a sense of duty to counter musical orthodoxy. The musical politics do need defusing: nothing kills a proper hearing like derision. Punk's criticisms were accurate, but (as you'd expect) most were about attitude rather than music; were even anti-musical, that the proggers played too well, as if instrumental skill blocked rather than enabled expression. Being too long is only a sin when there aren't the ideas to fill or fit the length; being too complicated is only a sin when complexity becomes a goal itself. Even if it was a pretension, prog succeeded in breaking the assumptions about 'the song' which critiques used as proofs of its debility.
That fossilised debate is a reminder of what can't be claimed for Tales. It is surprisingly stuffed with ideas, but they succeed each other at a bewildering rate, daisychained rather than networked. It flows, but meanderingly, and not to anywhere in particular. There are pregnant lulls. There are show-off set-pieces for percussion and classical guitar. And the lyrics are utter bullshit: that's meant not in disrespect to their scriptural origins, but to Anderson's shallow and cynical use of them. The original liner notes (which the rereleased album preserves for hilarity) capture the mixture of hippie pick-and-mix spirituality and pragmatic exploitation as musical suite. The result: wholly impenetrable, frequently laughable, thankfully well-sung.
But that's all you can hold against Tales. It sounds gorgeous. Whatever strange inspiration brought cut-out farm animals into the studio, it apparently did the trick: where Close to the Edge disoriented (how'd we get from that rainforest into this cathedral?) Tales is warm and welcoming. Anderson's babbling turns from that of an idiot to that of a stream. Even Rick Wakeman canned his ego for once to contribute rich and restrained tones. All efface their skills to make it sound easy, rather than (like most prog since) bringing them to the fore to impress with difficulty. It's a pleasure, not an endurance.
But what's actively interesting, and not just worth apology, about Tales is how it makes you listen. Eighty minutes of variations on a set of motifs is beyond anyone's attention span: so you don't pay attention. You let it flow around and over you. By being neither startling nor memorable, it doesn't demand to be listened to nor intrude on your thoughts when it's over; by being never less than pleasant, it enriches whatever else you happen to be doing at the time. Yet it's intricate enough to reward your dipping into it more attentively. Tales isn't just the last great prog album: it's the first great ambient album. Perhaps not designedly, but it fulfils that function perfectly, occupying the same mindspace as the Orb's extended mixes or mid-period Orbital, and only twenty years earlier. It's an ocean worth a swim.