High Civilization, by the Bee Gees
It is strange that it took me this long to discover the greatness of the album High Civilization. To be sure, this album’s greatness is not obvious nor has it ever been particularly popular, either when it was selling very few copies in 1991 when it was released to general puzzlement nor in the streaming age where it remains a very obscure and little-known album. Yet this album is a great album nonetheless, and it is well worth exploring why that is the case. How is it that an album could be this good and yet be so totally unknown, despite being from a group that had a lot of prior success and would have some success later on as well with a comeback starting in the mid-90’s and continuing on until the death of Maurice Gibb in the early 2000’s put an end to the group as an active concern.
Among the more obvious deterrent factors to this album is the length of its songs. Only one of the songs on the entire album is less than 4 minutes, and that was the only single from the album and the only song from this era of the Bee Gees that remains somewhat well-known, the moving but also ambivalent “Secret Love,” which gives a great deal of fondness for a clandestine relationship about which the careful listener should probably have a lot more questions. Beyond that, there are no obvious single choices–probably why no other singles were cut to help support a project that clearly was not selling well–because most of the tracks are well over five minutes here. This is a dark album–songs like “Human Sacrifice,” “The Only Love,” “Evolution,” “Ghost Train,” and “When He’s Gone,” a sizable part of this album–are melancholy and often gloomy and reflective songs about love. Still some of these songs are surprisingly upbeat, from “Dimensions,” which has a jaunty tone about the many sides to a complicated woman, to “Party With No Name,” which offers its own surprising take on a predatory sort of love.
It seems strange that an album with the title of High Civilization would be full of such odd and quirky and eccentric–and even savage–meditations on love. It is quite possible that in this the Bee Gees were ahead of the curve when it came to having a well-developed sense of irony. Be that as it may, this is an album that deserves attention. If you are a fan of the Brothers Gibb, as I am, this album is a neglected and obscure era in their body of work that deserves far more attention than it receives. Whether a single edit on one or two of the songs here could have turned this album’s fate around, as it is clear that “Secret Love” was not enough to make this album accessible to the masses of the early 1990’s who were enjoying similarly lengthy projects from such artists as Bryan Adams, whose songs were in the same length as these ones is too late to answer at this point, but it is certainly an interesting thought experiment nonetheless. For those who do pay attention to this album, the mix between period instrumentation and production and surprisingly pointed lyrics about love and relationships make this a distinctly unusual pleasure in the body of work of the Bee Gees as a whole.
This is an eclectic album; highly synthesized with more than a few songs driven by a GREAT beat–just the way a person coming of age in the seventies would like it! The music is a mix of sixties and early seventies hard rock with the pop, synthesized and German downbeat styles of the eighties. It appears as though the BeeGees wanted to infuse their unique sound with the styles of other well-known performers and the music in vogue when they were performing ballads and disco songs instead.
I found this album easy on the ears. One forgets that the songs are so long if attention is paid to their construction and beauty. It is interesting to note that the musical arrangements left this listener in a positive frame of mind, even though the words are reflective and melancholy. The title song is rockin’; as are “Ghost Train” and “When He’s Gone”. The tight harmony is especially prominent in the latter. “Happy Ever After” takes on a Caribbean-type, lilting tempo, which differs greatly with the eighties, German-style downbeat style of “Party with no Name” and “True Confessions”. “Dimensions” takes on a Paula Abdul vibe, while “Human Sacrifice” has a Michael Jackson feel to it. “Secret Love” added a driving beat to a beautiful ballad and reminded me of their roots. “The Only Love” was a true ballad and its more subtle beat was, to me, vintage BeeGees. I have to say that this song was one of my favorites on this very good album, just for the memories it invoked.
I really liked this album, I was just really surprised by it. It seems to have set up the general tone of the last few albums that the Bee Gees had, where they explored diverse approaches to music that were informed by the times but also by the brothers’ own tight harmonies and songcraft. In a way, this album marks part of the band’s renaissance, though it would (like its follow-up, the equally good and equally underrated Size Isn’t Everything) didn’t capture the popular appeal. Fortunately, Still Waters and This Is Where I Came In ended the Bee Gees discography on a commercial as well as artistic high note, but this album demonstrated that the Bee Gees had a lot more to offer than met the eye.
Yes, this is a true renaissance album. They never compromised artistic integrity when integrating their own sound with the “soup of the day”. It took so long to reinvent themselves with the public because they had been typecast as that “disco” group. When disco died, it could have very well ended their career. Their delft hand at infusing their unique sound with other musical styles points to their instinctive genius and am I ever glad that they didn’t let the bottom line direct their productivity. We are the grateful beneficiaries of their blood, sweat, toil and–yes–tears.
I was listening to the title track and I was struck by its rather stark applicability to the present day. It is a shame that so few people listened to the album when it came out, but it was very good for us that they made a great album and kept seeking to demonstrate that they were more than a disco supergroup. It seems rather surprising that people would think them as just a disco group given their more than a decade of material before disco came around, to say nothing of their post-disco albums.