Justin Hayward’s had many milestones in his fifty year career. The prolific singer-songwriter sold over 60 million albums and notched a handful of unforgettable hits with legendary rockers The Moody Blues, including “Question,” “Tuesday Afternoon,” and “Your Wildest Dreams.” He also sang on Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds in 1978 and issued a string of acclaimed solo projects from 1977-1985 without wandering too far from the Moodys, who remain a premier live touring act.
Now the iconic voice behind “Nights in White Satin” is back with his first disc in over fifteen years, Spirits of the Western Sky.
Featuring lush orchestration by Academy Award-winning composer Anne Dudley and the songwriting chops fans have come to expect of Hayward, Spirits finds the Wilshire, England native channeling his creative muse vis-à-vis romantic Genoa, Italy and sunny Nashville, Tennessee. A decade in the making, Spirits is the first true testament of what’s been on Hayward’s mind since View from the Hill (1996), a pastiche of night birds and skylarks, gardens and groves—a musical postcard of summer haze and still shadows lingering beneath breeze-brushed trees.
Thematically, Spirits is a reflective rather than nostalgic album, a celebration of rebirth, love, and forgiveness from a sexagenarian singer who’s been there, done that. At least half the cuts have the Moody balladeer taking stock of intimate relationships, reveling in the beauty of interpersonal connections that click and reexamining ones that don’t. Hayward’s narrators keep their chins up and hearts open even when something’s amiss. Throughout, Hayward maintains a cheery optimism and warm, “we’ll overcome” determination that sees his lovelorn characters through every obstacle—or at least tides them over until the cosmic tumblers click into place, sending good fortune their way.
Easy-listening opener “In Your Blues Eyes” is a valentine ornamented with bright chords, gently loping drums, swirling strings, and one of Hayward’s tasteful electric guitar solos. The wistful “One Day, Someday” bounces over a hiccupping acoustic riff and triggered drums, gaining altitude courtesy a few decorative keyboard swells and Hayward’s patent vocal harmonies. The song finds his repentant, “repeatedly defeated” narrator trying to reconcile with an aggrieved paramour, contenting himself with “the music keeping [him] sane” until past sins are forgiven.
“We put our faith in God and Man, and one of them betrays us every chance he can,” he croons.
Yet Hayward allows his Romeos and Lotharios to believe tomorrow things will change and that past wrongs will be righted. He doesn’t entertain despair. “I’m still here, still rollin’ on, trying to get I love you into every song,” he confesses.
The cinematic, slow-build title cut clings to love as an ideal—a “beautiful adventure” worth taking even when circumstances (here, a couple contemplating “what might have been”) suggest otherwise. Acoustic guitars and electric piano create a lulling rhythm as artificial harmonics cascade between the chords and timpani punctuates the verses. Hayward’s lead guitar tone hasn’t changed much from his Songwriter and Night Flight days. His attack is clean, his solos uncluttered excursions of forlorn midrange that serve the song rather than call attention to themselves. Sister track “The Eastern Sun” (our personal favorite) is a lovely finger-style guitar study wherein Hayward delves into “life’s mercy” while Dudley’s violins and cello softly billow. It’s easily the most poetic lyric on the album, a Walden guidebook of picturesque meadows and streams juxtaposed by the sounds of children at play and his own earnest, let me be plea to a seemingly noncommittal partner. It’s also Hayward’s most impassioned delivery; despite the singer’s heavenly hums, his voice cracks imaging a world “with no sorrow and no shame.”
The album’s second half commences with its liveliest offering: “On the Road to Love” pits flower power against pop rock in an upbeat indictment of time as the illusion, the game that we all play. And if the song sounds not unlike something Kenny Loggins might’ve penned in the Eighties, it’s only because the chart-topping “Footloose” auteur co-wrote the ditty with Hayward after a chance meeting on the road and sang backup for Hayward in-studio.
“Lazy Afternoon” finds the uncertain singer second-guessing himself to the sound of soft piano and hollow impact of a repetitive rim shot. I’d have given you the world if I had known just what to say, Hayward surmises. “In the Beginning” examines the flip side of the same coin; the singer acknowledges that to get you’ve got to give. Organ percolates behind urgent acoustic strums in a gospel-like crescendo as twangy guitars wail over stuttering percussion. The Moody guitarist fully embraces his country side on “Cold Outside of Your Heart” and indulges bluegrass on “What You Resist Persists,” working banjo, fiddle, and mandolin into the mixes. Shucks, “Broken Dream” even features pedal steel; it’s as if the Englishman temporarily traded his pastoral-psychedelic roots for the fricasseed fields of the American rural South. Strangely, it works.
Hayward’s back on familiar ground with “Captivated by You,” a sweeping that has a “mesmerized, hypnotized, sanctified” admirer doting over his lover in catchy verses that beguile with sharp rhythm guitar—but lead to a haunting, minor-chorded bridge that’ll have listeners wondering where’d that come from. It’s clever how the songwriter veers from one end of the spectrum to the other so seamlessly.
Spirits of the Western Wild is something of a throwback with its decidedly non-cynical appraisal of love and human attachment—but that makes the music that much more delightful. It’s a road journal by one of rock’s most well-traveled troubadours, a soundtrack custom-made for mid-winter nuzzles by fireside, summertime cocktails on the patio at dusk, and Sunday drives in October.
If Sir Paul is king of “Silly Love Songs,” Hayward is prince—a fastidious, silken-gloved curator of gushing, unabashed pronouncements and melodious musical phrasings that underscore the inherent goodness in people. Few others can distill such complex sentiments into ear-pleasing sound bites and make it seem this effortless (Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, and Bernie Taupin come to mind). Hayward’s characters don’t hold grudges even when their partners do. The pursuit of happiness isn’t always successful, but life’s too short to not let go and move on when the chase doesn’t pay off.
Hayward and friends relieved tension in the studio by cueing up a dance remix of “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere.” By the end of sessions for Spirits, the club version of the 1988 Moody hit—which pairs Hayward’s Yamaha DX7 synth with percolating beats—couldn’t be excluded from the finished product. Indeed, “Out There Somewhere” appears twice at disc’s end—first as a three-minute bass laden club track, then as Raul Rincon’s eight-minute Latin-flavored reduction looping Hayward’s familiar hear my voice refrain with pulsating rhythm and hypnotic keys. Rave-ready electronic samples Doppler across the stereo plane as snare and cymbal dictate a furious tempo.