John Denver

John Denver's Greatest Hits, Volume 2
Rating: 6
Squirm factor: 3
         A guy like John Denver is bound to take a lot of flak from most rock critics; his music is mellow, his outlook corny, his attitude sentimental – all of which are anathema to the punk-loving, angst-breeding critical establishment.
   But on the other hand, his music is pretty, his voice astonishing in its purity and strength (he’s the Greg Lake of folk music), and for listeners who like to wallow in their happiness occasionally, his corny, sentimental lyrics are just right. John Denver didn’t spend the sixties schlepping around every coffee bar in the country for nothing – he saw the tension and anxiety building from our cultural crisis, and he saw how mellowing out his music did so much to make his listeners feel better. By the time the seventies rolled around, the country was ready to lend an ear to the voice of fresh air and sunshine, making Denver one of the biggest stars of the decade.
   A close listen to his most popular work reveals more than just a clever marketing strategy, though. Denver had a strong sense of melody and a poetic touch in his lyrics, bringing out the good feelings without turning drippy or saccharine. Denver’s peak years of popularity are summed up in this album, although it neglects a few items that you may know, such as “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, and “Rocky Mountain High” (they’re featured on Volume 1).
   The best cuts here, though, are on a par with any songs recorded in the seventies. “Annie’s Song” is a perennial wedding favorite, and despite my usual misgivings about perennial wedding favorites (is there anything more ludicrous than “I swear by the moon and the stars and the sky”?), it’s a stunner. The melody is simple yet powerful, as it steadily climbs the scale with evenly spaced notes then stretches the notes until it tumbles down again quickly (“you fill up my sennnnnn-sessssssss, like a nightintheforest”). It’s a songwriter’s dream, easily covered by anyone with a moderate range, but not trite. The lyric is a powerful simile connecting the rush of new love with the overwhelming sensory overload that nature can provide; although it’s easily parodied (“you fill up my sinus, like a bottle of Flonase”), it strikes to something deep in the souls of all but the most hardened listeners.
   ”Calypso” has a chorus that might strike some as a cheap anthem-in-the-works, with its “Aye, Calypso” yelp at the beginning – but when connected with the verse melody, it proves to be more evocative of a sea shanty, which is all the more appropriate considering the subject matter, Jacques-Yves Costeau’s research vessel. Costeau was a marine biologist (he invented the aqualung) who caught the public’s attention and drew it to the environmental dangers facing ocean life. Denver captures a bit of that spirit in the brisk arrangement and naturalistic lyrics: “To sail on a dream on a crystal clear ocean / To ride on the crest of a wild raging storm.”
   Denver captures the darker emotions as well, but without turning the affair into some sort of pity party. “Fly Away” never struck me until it was played at my grandmother’s funeral, but now all sorts of meanings come out. A gentle, soothing melody rises and falls like a steady breath, and the chorus trails off like a daydreaming speaker, while we’re introduced with a powerful textural image: “All of her days have gone soft and cloudy / All of her dreams have gone dry / All of her nights have gone sad and shady / She’s getting ready to fly.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better song lyric about that feeling of ennui we all get sometimes.
   It’s not all wonderful, though. Denver does engage in cheap nostalgia for a time that never was (“Grandma’s Feather Bed”, “Thank God I’m a County Boy” – neither of which he wrote), and delves into self-pity (“I’m Sorry”). But at his best, John Denver was a consummate craftsman of songs for healthy souls, and if you just can’t sympathize with Patti Smith or Johnny Rotten, come on over to his side of the fence some time. The grass really is greener over here.

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