Tentative Review #119

Great Dirty World

(released 1987)

1. Moonlight Desires ***1/2
2. Awake The Giant ***
3. Living In The Golden Age **1/2
4. Dedication **1/2
5. Human Drama **
6. Forever One ***
7. One Brief Shining Moment **1/2
8. 60 Second Nightmare **1/2
9. Great Dirty World ***




Although his name is anaethema to serious music listeners these days, there was actually a time when Larry Gowan was a fairly respectable figure in the Canadian rock scene. Gowan had been a fan of progressive rock in the 1970s, and it was only natural that some of this would spill over into his work in the 1980s. After the failure of his first, eponymous solo album (1982), he scored a regional hit with Strange Animal (1985). Featuring such tracks as "Criminal Mind", "You're A Strange Animal" and "Cosmetics", the album propelled LG to a level of notoriety in his own country ... and perhaps there was even a bit of respect to go along with this.

Strange Animal was the creative peak of his career, and it wasn't necessarily a monumental success. At its best, the music was somewhat akin to Rush -- possessing of some progressive elements, but watered down for more mainstream structures. At its worst, it was so much sound and fury. There was clearly some talent here, but its proper channeling was never assured. Besides which, the album benefited from the presence of extremely talented session players, Tony Levin dominant among these; the extent to which Gowan himself was responsible for the quality of the music was and remains a point of disputation.

The rot had probably always been there, but it was coming to the foreground on Great Dirty World (1987), his third release. Though it had a good leadoff single (and a half-decent follow-up), the album was otherwise remarkably devoid of substance. From someone who could have been a leading Canadian populist art-rocker (on the level of Fish, say), it was a letdown. Taken in conjunction with the subsequent Gowan releases, GDW suggests that his levels of artistic discretion were never terribly high; indeed, one might well today wonder how he managed to produce any decent music at all.

The good leadoff single from the album was "Moonlight Desires", a track which managed to make the Top 20 on some Canadian charts (in the rest of the world, never mind). It's leadoff keyboard line was fairly memorable, and the bass work (which seems to be by Tony Levin) drives the track along fairly well; the guitar presence isn't quite as good, though the quasi-drone of the second verse is a nice touch. The most notable element of this track, however, is Yes vocalist Jon Anderson, making a cameo appearance which, oddly, never seems to elicit much discussion on Yes-related forums. It's not really easy to see why, given that Jon's presence "makes" the song -- his multi-tracked vocals are on par with the best mixing on Big Generator, at least, and the counterbalance of his voice with Larry's actually works fairly well. This track, incidentally, had an even better video -- shot on a Mexican pyramid range, with Gowan and Anderson acting as rival Moon and Sun spirits. The song deserved more diverse attention that it received; in any event, though, it still holds up as a fairly good opener.

Nothing else on the album is of the same level. "Awake The Giant", the follow-up single, is muscle-bound rock with a vaguely proggy influence (more in the keys than anything else; the guitar might suggest Spinal Tap). This isn't bad as rockers go, but the pomp of it all seems a bit lacking at times -- besides which, it's virtually a "ready to open for Rush on the next tour" advertisement, and should appeal most strongly to fans of this unit. And let's not speak of the guitar "solo". LG's dearth of ideas seems evident here, even if the matter had not yet reached a crisis point.

The long stretch of mediocrity then begins. "Living In The Golden Age" has some merit in its keyboard/vocal arrangement, but is so fully drenched in high-school melodrama that it doesn't really matter. The tepid drum backing, cliche "seeking the future" lyrics and Styx-esque progressions are all tip-offs that something isn't right; in the final judgement, its simply too cheesy of a number to respect (one can practically see the candles in the audience, moving in slow motion from side to side ...). This was actually released as the third single from the album ("ATG" having been something of a success in Canada as well), but vanished quickly.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about "Dedication" is that it isn't a total failure -- the pomp-balladry seems at least as much "epic" and "prosaic", and while the admixture is somewhat Tappian, it could have been a lot worst. There's not much point in analysing the lyrics -- the singer pledges commitment, etc. From a musical standpoint ... well ... Levin's probably on this one too, some of the keyboard sounds are okay, and the subtle inclusion of a brief acoustic guitar line in mid-song (but who's playing it?) are all points in its favour. All told, though, it's just not a terribly notable song.

The second half of the album begins with the lame "Human Drama", a work of tackiness as evident from the first synth-laden, cheese-'80s notes. Add to this dire lyrics, overwrought singing, irritating backing vocals ... and you have yet another step in Gowan's downfall. This is one to skip, quite simply.

With a title like "Forever One", the listener might expect yet another cheap love lyric; it turns out, though, that this is probably the second best track on the album. The lyrics take on a "lone warrior" motif rather than a "faithful lover" stance; this would probably be laughable were it not for the fact that the music accompanying it is fairly proficient (rather akin to Tony Banks, it some ways). The bagpipes at the end probably suggest a direct attempt at Scottishisms, which shouldn't be too surprising (LG having been known for playing up the "Scottish" persona on various occasions). The conclusion might be stretched out a bit too far, but this remains a relative highlight.

"One Brief Shining Moment" takes the listener back into tolerable mediocrity -- and a mediocrity set to a tune reminiscent of "Cosmetics", at that. There aren't terribly many other notable features about this one, save for a qualitatively neutral saxophone solo in mid-song.

"60 Second Nightmare" has a bit of potential about it, but the execution is too much of a mess for it to really work. The thunder effects and bogus synth-pomp at the track's beginning are harbingers of an exploration into the depths of a tormented man's soul ... such a motif has potential, but is here done rather poorly (with the silly backing vocals not helping terribly much at all).

The concluding track of the album, "Great Dirty World", is a bit better once again. This is, in essence, a moderately good '80s pop number -- subject to the limitations of the genre, but tolerable as such. The music, if not overly impressive, is at least substantial; the drumming is more notable here than elsewhere, as well. Not a track to move the earth, this is still decent enough on its own terms.

Such is Great Dirty World, in many ways the last hurrah for LG as a artistically viable presence in the music world. In 1989, he released All The Lovers In The World, the title track of which represented a severe drop in quality from his previous singles; it was a commercial failure as well. Then, in 1992, he decided to become "Laurence Gowan", and (to judge from the single which received videoplay) lost virtually all of his creative ambition in the process, contenting himself with low-key ballads. This album revived his career, at the cost of making him an outsider to any interesting musical developments. I'm told that one semi-proggy number appears on a recent LG album (featuring Robert Fripp and Tony Levin, no less), but I have not yet heard this. In the final result, Gowan will probably be remembered as a mere footnote in the Canadian music scene, his progressive elements at most a minor backdrop to his work.

Great Dirty World is not recommended, though those curious might as well find a copy of it for "Moonlight Desires".

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 18 Jul 1998)

[ Tentative reviews home | index by artist | Previous | Next ]