A YEAR IN MUSIC: 1974
Review by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Choosing one single album from 1974 was always going to be a difficult one; I mean ferchrissakes this was the year of John Cale’s Fear and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, Red by King Crimson and Neil Young’s On the Beach. It also saw the release of other heavyweight classics from as I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight by Richard and Linda Thompson to Bowie’s magisterial Diamond Dogs and… need I go on? What a coup it would be if 2016 could lay claim to even just one record of the stature of the aforementioned, and yet 1974 was able to boast something of an abundance, a surfeit. So that being the fruitful year that it was, the task of narrowing 1974 down to one defining record seemed a little bit of an exercise in futility, the warped practise of excessively anal and emotionally frigid fanboys. And yet there is something to be said for such an exercise if it forces you to ask yourself what it is that made you fall in love with an album in the first place, and can you rationalise it, and isolate at least some of those emotions and feelings that the music can evoke in you? And all that in turn usually provokes a deeper appreciation of the album itself, at least that’s how it’s gone for me in the past.
In the end, the choice of record turned out to be fairly straightforward. For, casting my eye down the length of RYM’s highest rated chart for 1974 (at least the part from 1-100), I found myself inextricably drawn to one single record in particular, the album in question exerting its massive gravitational pull from near the top of the chart at an impressive seventh place. Not bad for a record that hardly anyone outside of the Lusophone has ever heard of and that you’ll have a hard time tracking down at your local record store. I’m talking about Jorge Ben’s remarkable A Tábua de Esmeralda.
I only discovered A Tábua de Esmeralda last year, shortly before Christmas, thanks to a very felicitous recommendation by fellow music fan and genuine Brazilian, Francelino de Azevedo. It’s an album that began to weave its spell on me almost immediately. At first the allure was all in its very understated, very delicate, almost spectral beauty — and in the beginning that beauty was all that I could hear. A Tábua de Esmeralda has so much of that innate joy and optimism that I associate with Tropicalia — as if it was always being sung through a smile. I am especially in awe at how Tropicalia, at its very best like A Tábua de Esmeralda, can manage to convey so much of the joy and optimism of a perfect, shimmering dawn: the soft, diaphanous and blissful quality of the music. Being up in Glasgow at the beginning of January, back when my obsession with the album had really started in earnest, I was in dire need of some reflected warmth and sunshine, I can tell you.
Because I do not have much of a grasp of the language, the meaning of the words and the cultural references on the record were pretty much lost on me. Certainly the fact that the language in question is Brazilian Portuguese — a language justly renowned and justly famous for its richness and innate musicality — made it eminently easy to only focus on how the words sounded, how freely and joyfully they rolled off the singer’s tongue, rather than on what it is that they might actually signify. But gradually my superficial and purely aesthetic appreciation of Tabu began to trouble me. I started to get the impression that ignoring as I had been the whole socio-political-historical dimension to the album, I really wasn’t doing it proper justice; that I was in effect just projecting my exotic Brazilian-Tropicalia fantasies onto the music. It was more than just self-doubting right-on liberal guilt on my part though: the music kept on drawing me in further and further, and after I got over the initial impact that the grace and the dizzying beauty of Jorge’s music had had on me, then my mind became much more attuned to the more complex emotional palette of the songs. The centerpiece of the album — the song that convinced me beyond all doubt of A Tábua de Esmeralda’s status as a masterpiece, and that also never fails to give me goosebumps whenever I listen to it — is called Zumbi. It’s a song that is as close to perfection as it gets, at least to my ears. I would have it rolling on a loop in my head for days upon end and at night when I got up to go to the toilet I’d be thinking ‘What is this fucking song that’s still echoing away in my head? I have to listen to that Jorge Ben album straight away when I get up’. Zumbi though was clearly more than just a bunch of pretty words strung together in a charming and colourful arrangement. Part of what made it so compelling was that it sounded like it was about something horrifying, some kind of terrible event and that in the end was rendered into something beautiful and sublime and hopeful, without sacrificing that sense of sheer, fiery indignation, and all through the true songwriter-alchemist’s art. It tugged so powerfully at the heart and guts that you felt positively obliged to ask what it was all about, just what was the story behind it? — once the song got at you, you couldn’t just leave it at that. I went and checked online for a translation of the text and found out that it was about the leader of a slave uprising, the titular Zumbi, and learned the whole story thanks to Wikipedia; the translation of the lyrics with a brief explanation of the background of the song can be found here.
But that’s just the one song. In the end, like any of the other great album masterworks in the popular music canon — Forever Changes, Blood on the Tracks, Pet Sounds, Astral Weeks — A Tábua de Esmeralda has its own rigorous internal logic, with nothing, not even a note, out of place. And like all those other albums it has its own distinctive magic, and that special exhilaration you feel whenever you hear the opening bars of the first song, and you already know what it is that you’re in for.