Review by: Nina A
Album assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Am I always glad to spend some more time in the philosophical company of the only Russian musician we have heard of on this blog – namely the great otherworldly bearded bardic guru Boris Borisovich Grebenshchikov. He certainly wasn’t always bearded though and while I have no idea what the progress of his facial hair was by 1995, which is when Navigator got released, what I do know is that after the fall of the Berlin wall, Mr. Grebenshchikov had also already tried to use this new opportunity to export his creative efforts to the West. Here, Wikipedia tells us that he didn’t quite make it and this could be partly attributed to the fact that Russian song tradition emphasizes lyrical complexity over hook and drive, which in the West earned him comparisons to Dylan and not much chart success, and I think it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that his music was considered for one of the two primordial categories (has hooks: “ooh, Beatle-esque pop!!” vs. has an emphasis on lyrical content: “ooh, Dylan!!!”), as you do, in musical critique, with anything that is new.
Saddened with this new development, Mr. Grebenshchikov decided to go full-on Russian apparently and released the so-called Russian Album, a beautiful acoustic folk-rock affair that relies even more on Russian songwriting tradition, and later, in 1995 came Navigator, which continued in this unmistakably Russian bardic vein with some French chanson flavour and bluesy touches (fourth track “Не коси”’s blues guitar contributed by Mick Taylor stands out here) for good measure. The album was recorded in London, so it also featured contributions by Dave Pegg on the double bass and Dave Mattacks on drums. And since it made use of a bunch of additional instruments: strings, flute, recorder, harpsicord, accordion, mandolin, Tibetan drums, I was curious to look to a previous eclectic Aquarium effort, and nothing spells eclecticism quite like a Russian album named Radio Africa with some Chinese characters plastered on top of a photo taken at the Gulf of Finland, for comparison. While on 1988’s Radio Africa the creative use of the additional instruments to drive the beat or make the texture of the music more complex can rock your socks off with delight, here on Navigator these instruments serve more of a background atmosphere role because it is the bardic narration that takes the front and centre. This is especially so on the title track “Навигатор”, which can really be used as a textbook example of a touching bardic ballad. Well, if you are touched by this type of thing, anyway.
And for all the talk of Dylan, I think that namedropping Mark Knopfler would also not be too out of reach here because didn’t Mr. Knopfler also have a reputation for being a young man who writes good music for old people? (at around 40 at the time of Navigator’s release, Mr. Grebenshchikov was not even eligible for a midlife crisis yet). But more importantly, I feel that both Mr. Knopfler and Mr. Grebenshchikov have been able to pull of songs that are pretty much driven by a lyrical narration and have a comforting melancholy sound with remarkable ease. However, while the majority of Mark Knopfler’s narrations are concerned with ordinary life drama, with most of Boris Grebenshchikov’s composition aspire to levels of Byronic spleen and irony paired with incredible erudition, a combination that has over the years become somewhat of a staple for the model tortured soviet artist (and while soviet times are safely behind us, such artistic types still hang around, inexplicably, mostly in the sphere of fine arts and film education, proudly passing this refined tradition onto their students). Still, Boris Grebenshchikov was made to pull this archetype off and make it very likeable: let’s not forget his friendly melancholy voice of ancient wisdom, talent for lyrical detail and the aforementioned erudition that allows him to slip in the occasional religious or mythological detail for full impact. It is really comforting in a sense when he tackles this aesthetic in his music, and whatever the wry commentary in a particular song might be, you’d accept it with the “I know what you’re talking about” reserved for your closest friends with which you’ve suffered the blows of fate together for God knows how long… yeah, the 90s weren’t the most cheerful of eras in Eastern Europe.
Anyway, Navigator is a fine record put together with loving care and intelligence, featuring no less than two accordion-driven waltzy numbers, two bluesy tracks, a rousing folk epic (track 3 – “Кладбище”) and a whole lot of gentle intimate singing in the finest Russian bardic tradition. The reaction it got out of me was “aww, how cute and so very admirably authentic” but it might get some even more cathartic reactions from other listeners and truly cement Boris Borisovich Grebenshchikov’s status of everyone’s favourite great otherworldly bearded bardic guru.