Classic Music Review: Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus by Spirit

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This was yet another one of those records spinning in the soundtrack of my youth, one that I remember vividly for two reasons. First of all, Spirit didn’t sound like anyone else, so their appearance always made my tiny ears perk up. Second, Twelve Dreams gave my dad another opportunity to educate his curious daughter on the cultural context of music, especially when the song “Nature’s Way” popped up.

“The Santa Barbara Oil Spill was the seminal event in the environmental movement,” he lectured. He told me about the pictures of oil soaked birds and of dead seals washing up on the once picture-perfect California beaches. Already an anti-litter Nazi thanks to Jimi Hendrix, I extended my powers of protection to include all wildlife and developed the impression that oil was a very wicked thing indeed. This impression hardened when I wound up going to college in Southern California and spent hours on the fucking I-10 wasting tons of fossil fuel trying to get to the night clubs inconveniently scattered around L. A. I also picked up my father’s habit of musical-historical integration, leading me to spend hours that I could have spent fucking on researching things like the correlation between Sputnik, Ford Fairlanes, Dave Garroway and Chuck Berry’s lyrics.

Sometimes I think I’m so weird.

Still obsessed with research, I was stunned to learn that Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus was Spirit’s lowest charting album, failing to earn gold record status until several years after its release. My conclusion is that Americans had their heads firmly up their asses in 1970, given the fact that Iron Butterfly and Three Dog Night both made it to the Top 20. Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus is clearly one of the best albums ever produced by an American band, and Randy California is American music’s great unsung hero.

I adore the acoustic prelude, a lovely bit of music containing one of my favorite mottos on how to deal with life:

You have the world at your fingertips,
No one can make it better than you.

Then, with the passionately delivered “Wake up!” we move into “Nothin’ to Hide” and Spirit starts to kick some ass. The funk-rock rhythms . . . the multiple voices coming from various spots in the sound field and melting into harmonies at perfect moments . . . Ed Cassidy’s intense but sensitive drumming . . . the crazy spinning guitars . . . whew! I love the line, “We’re married to the same bride,” which I later adopted as my polygamous life goal (with the bride in charge, of course). Right from the start, the high level of collaboration on the part of all the band members is both noticeable and appreciated.

The stark intensity of “Nature’s Way” arrives in sharp contrast to the celebratory feel of “Nothin’ to Hide,” but the song possesses even more drama than its predecessor. The arrangement is a masterpiece in itself; you can follow each track in the mix and receive a Master’s level education in musical arrangement (and musicianship). Follow the acoustic guitar through the first verse and note how it gradually moves from subtle picking of the 5-4-3 strings of the A minor chord and slowly adds the higher strings until bursting into full-soundhole strum in the chorus. Or take note of the tympanic emphases, especially how they disappear after the intro to avoid scattering the vocals, and how they return only in the brief gaps between certain lines. Listen to that beautiful lead guitar riff in the third and fourth lines, so subtle, bluesy and in perfect counterpoint to the main theme. Or the complex weaving of the harmonies and background vocals. The lyrics are intuitive, the kind that knock you out with their simplicity. “Nature’s Way” should appear near the top of any credible list of truly great songs by American songwriters.

Spirit had too much energy to stay in reflective mode for long, so next they serve up “Animal Zoo,” a burst of great fun with a clear, but not over-the-top message of environmental and personal awareness. The vocal interplay is a kick, and the movement of this song is intensely infectious:

Synthesizer swirls dominate the opening to “Love Has Found A Way,” a determinedly optimistic message celebrating the power of love in a world filled by war and other forms of violence. The choice between the gun and the sun is a simple but effective contrast. The song doesn’t really end as much as “Why Can’t I Be Free” appears, almost as an interruption, but is in essence the opposing mood to “Love Has Found A Way,” expressing the yearning for spiritual freedom that seems to continually elude us. It’s a sweet harmonic acoustic number ending fittingly in whispers and sighs.

One characteristic of Spirit’s sound is their tendency to make forays into funk. “Mr. Skin” opens like a late-era Motown number with its falsetto oohing and horns, sliding into a nice groove with a soulful lead vocal, background singers and faint echoes of “Land of 1,000 Dances.” Yes, the line “I can bring you pain, I can bring you sudden pleasure” is another motto for me, but I’ll spare you the details and move to the next song, “Space Child.” Opening like a Moody Blues number with intense piano and synth waves in the background mirroring the sound of gulls, this is the instrumental interlude in the album, a piece that would have been better with less spacey-ness and a more authentic jazz arrangement. Such were the times, though, so some forgiveness is necessary.

“Space Child” melts into a burst of intense noise giving way to the crunchy guitars that open “When I Touch You.” The guitar run is played at a faster tempo before scaling back into a drone-like variant that marks this tune as slightly mystical, dark and a bit on the heavy side. It works as a contrast piece, particularly because of Ed Cassidy’s remarkable fluidity on a drum kit. Jay Ferguson’s “Street Worm” comes next, and you can easily imagine his work with Jo Jo Gunne by replacing the excessively panned lead solo with a layered, big guitar sound. The band overdoes it a bit with “Life Has Just Begun,” burying the essential prettiness in an arrangement far too busy for this song. The melody is lovely, but I have to say that after the four-song sequence that begins with “Space Child,” I’m getting antsy for some movement.

Well, what’s that I hear? A classic rock riff? Yes! It’s “Morning Will Come,” one of the most energetic pieces on the album. That falsetto on the repeated word “come” has serious multiple connotations that I don’t need to spell out for this sophisticated audience. I wish they’d extended this song for about a minute and a half, though, just to let it rip. The final song, “Soldier,” takes us full circle to the opening theme of the prelude, albeit with more of an orchestral feel. The song glides into a lovely choral segment towards the end, where Randy California intones the beautiful lines that began our journey:

You have the world at your fingertips,
No one can make it better than you.

While the line may reflect the waning idealism of the 1960’s to some, for me it is a message of personal responsibility that resonates today. Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus is a timeless, unified work that celebrates both the message of ownership for the world around us and the joyous possibilities in musical innovation. It soothes, it rocks, it troubles us, it makes us think.

It’s a masterpiece.

6 responses

  1. […] Spirit, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus […]

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  2. Nice discussion of a truly great album from Rock’s golden age. No one can explain how magic happens, but I think the tension that resulted from California and Ferguson’s differing asthetic approaches (sometimes oversimplfied as experimentation vs. commerciality) played a big part. Great songs, offered with arrangements full of right-brain surprises that might have sounded affected, but instead sound inspired. I hear a joy and commitment in these performances that is extremely dificult to capture in a recording studio; prsumably Briggs, the producer, gets props for that. And Cassidy is amazing here – listen to the way he varies his rhythms to provide contrast between the verse/chorus/bridge of each of the songs. Truly an inspired collaberation.

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  3. poeticliaisons | Reply

    Great review of a great – nay – classic album. How awful was it that the original band split up after this masterwork? The artistic and stylistic balance between California and Ferguson’s songs was truly galvanizing and who would have imagined they would have outdone the first three albums with California at the compositional helm? My only quibble is that, outside of the undeniable Nature’s Way, I think Life Has Just Begun, busy arrangement and all, is the best song/arrangement Spirit ever produced.

    Amy

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    1. Apologies for the delayed response but when I get into writing mode I’m pretty obliviousness. I’ll have to go back and listen to “Life Has Just Begun” again because sometimes I get into minimalist mode and block the connection to the song . . . or not. The Spirit split ranks right up there with the Zombies splitting up after Odessey and Oracle—I just know that both bands had a whole lot more in them.

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  4. Amen! One of my favorite albums. Bought it freshman year of college, and nearly wore it out. Still have it. I, now 66, listen to Spirit on Pandora.
    “Fresh Garbage” is my favorite.

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    1. And it’s such a unique listening experience—every time I put it on the turntable, it feels like a fresh experience.

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