(Timothy White, Billboard, Feb 15, 1997)

Posted by VallyVal

Sometimes it seems as if nobody believes in spirits any more. Yet there is a stubborn folkloric hypothesis on the British Isle of Man that the mysterious music occasionally heard in its mountains at dusk is evidence of sylphs and undines, the elfin sprites of air and water. In accounts amasses in the early part of this century by such scholars as W.Y. Evans-Wentz, hikers claim to have paused in glens, listening to the irresistible tunes and later replicating them on fiddles after returning home. Local ears usually found the melodies entrancing, but when they were informed of their origins, profuse praise was frequently replaced with doubters' biting ridicule, the opinion being that nothing so wondrous could come from so absurd a source.

The most popular theory for the mystical sounds given by the resident faithful was that they were fallen angels, albeit those who had remained neutral rather than fight on the side of God when Lucifer staged his revolt. Their fate was to approximate heaven to earth, knowing a return to their previous bliss was impossible.

Such mythic predicaments almost match the lingering plight in America of the Isle of Man-reared Bee Gees during their two-decade pop exile after the mammoth 1977 impact of the "Saturday Night Fever" album (more than 40 million copies sold worldwide) and 1979's "Spirits Having Flown" (20 million global units). Call it an acceptance of paradise dispossessed, but all the forfeiture and wounded pride of the recent past would eventually translate into a new feeling of liberation for the three brothers Gibb. The new "Still Waters" album (Polydor, due April 22) allowed them to make music that denied none of the past letdowns but also defined an outlook that is selfless in tone instead of preoccupied with success deprivation.

To call "Still Waters" the Bee Gees' best record since the mold-disintegrating groove masterstroke of 1975's "Main Course" is a pale compliment for pop adepts who've seen at least three other recent records of comparative merit go ignored domestically: "One" (Warner Bros., 1989), with its No 1 UK smash "You Win Again"; the 1993 Polydor set "Size isn't Everything," whose hefty European hit "For Whom The Bell Tolls" was one of the few undeniably elevating songs of the '90s; and "High Civilization" (Warner Bros., 1991), which, although it supplied another UK chart win with "Secret Love," would prove the Bee Gees' most unremarked album in this country, even if its resourceful production showed the seeds of both the jungle and drum'n'bass techniques only now entering the pop mainstream.

It's much fairer to say that "Still Waters" is the last stage of an almost-supernatural creative resurrection in which susceptive listeners will luxuriate, perhaps finding it akin to the uncanny melodies one encounters during hikes in certain haunted hills beside the Irish Sea.

"What you are getting is an honest album from us," says Barry Gibb. " "For a few years, people were saying, 'Oh, it's a Bee Gees record, don't even listen to it.' That is what hurts us the most - the idea that you shouldn't even play it, that radio stations might have 'Bee Gees-free weekends.' The heart and soul you hear on our songs in this new album is our hunger. In each track, there's the idea that no matter who surrounds us, we are really alone anyway, individually, deep inside, so we may as well concentrate on living up to things we should demand and except of ourselves. What came out of the last decade for us, spiritually, was maybe a new level of humility, compassion.

"We call ourselves the enigma with the stigma," Barry confides, erupting in chuckles. "The thought within the first single, 'Alone' [which will be serviced to top 40 and AC radio on March 19], is that nobody really wants to be alone, and when you're in pain, nobody else feels it. But these actually can be good reasons to reach out."

Each verse of "Alone" speaks volumes about artistic prophets without honor who begin to question the very existence of the siren song that's always pulled them forward, asking "Is the glory there to behold/ Maybe it's my imagination." The isolation of the narrators' inner ache is acute, until they pass their long night of doubt and grasp that it's the central fact of that imagination -and not the possible glory it foretokens -that is the far greater gift: "So I play / I'll wait / And I pray it's not too late / You know we came so far / Just the beat of a lonely heart / And it's mine / And I don't want to be alone."

A richly pleasing feat of rhythmic balladry, "Alone" utilizes the dramatic instrumental devices and organic intricacy of meter that have always distinguished the trio's arrangements, in this instance a marching drum counterpoised with the tense toll of an acoustic guitar. But Barry is convinced that what clinched the track "emotionally" was brother Maurice's decision to add bagpipe-pitched keyboard beds to what was fundamentally an R&B framework. "The effect is like a longing," Maurice admits, "and it's like the French accordion or the oboe in that sense, giving this uplifting tone to what's really a romantic groove, something like a quiet heartbeat."

"In essence, we are singing about feelings we're actually trying to hold to ourselves," adds Robin Gibb, who supplies the song's flute-like falsetto descant above Barry's lead vocal. "Other people out there don't know how to express that, but it's what they want to hear, too."

Contrary to customary estimations, the Bee Gees have always pushed pop beyond familiar sentimentality and into an uneasy terrain of struggle and sudden jeopardy, even on an early signature work like "New York Mining Disaster 1941" (based on the Aberfan calamity in Wales that killed more than 200 children). The vulnerable invention in "Still Waters" on "My Lover's Prayer," "With My Eyes Closed," Closer Than Close," "I Will" and "Irresistible Force," with its plea for a "personal God," results in nothing less than a new raft of Bee Gee standards. Still, a series of private crises formed the crucible of such craft.

"I had heart trouble about two years back," says Barry. "It made me reassess my life, my self-identity, and appreciate the great worth of family."

"Me quitting drinking several years ago," says Maurice, "was the best thing that happened to me."

"Valuing the input of my three kids from my first and second marriages was important," says Robin, "especially from my son Spencer, who once said to me, 'I know more about the Bee Gees than you do.'"

As for the consistent danceability of much of the group's material, closer examination of even their "Fever" classic discloses a notable absence of robotic beats in favor of natural eurhythmy. "The rhythms in our songs are personal ones, absorbed from everyday experiences," says Barry. "I have a mental picture of us boys around 1955 in the Manchester suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, after we'd moved from the Isle of Man. We three made a pact as we headed down Keppel Road from school that, come hell or high water, we were going to make it as singers in a band. I think that us walking down that road on that day is still one of the main tempos in our music."

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