Justin Hayward has thrilled millions of fans worldwide with the musical genius that has been demonstrated time after time since replacing Denny Laine in the Moody Blues lineup in 1966. It was Hayward with his expert songwriting, distinctive polished guitar, and divine unmistakable vocals coupled with Mike Pinder’s bold experimentation with the Mellotron that illustrated the path for the band’s progressive and adventurous change of direction that they’ve followed ever since. His new solo album is entitled Spirits of the Western Sky and was recorded in Genoa, Italy and Nashville, Tennessee. The mystical romanticism always prevalent in Hayward’s gifted compositions is again on display, with deeply personal subject matter his general guideline.
Hayward reunites with noted English musician Anne Dudley, also known for her composing, arranging and producing chops. She was not only the founding member of pioneering electronic trio Art of Noise, but she also provided the elaborate orchestration for “Bless the Wings” from the Moody Blues’ Keys To The Kingdom album. On Spirits of the Western Sky Anne is responsible for the luxuriant orchestrations on “One Day, Someday” and “The Western Sky.”
Hayward’s trademark heavenly honeyed tenor vocals and sweet guitar are emphasized on the first cut titled “In Your Blue Eyes.” The mid-tempo rocker could fit quite nicely on a Moody Blues album, and proves the point that Justin has always been, first and foremost, an excellent songwriter. His track record of leading off with a strong track is once again his scheme here. Hayward’s electric guitar flourishes are tastefully elegant.
“One Day, Someday” also echoes the legendary Moody Blues sound with Justin’s velvety vocals and thoughtful lyrics painting a beautiful piece of pop art. The song is presented once again with a faintly altered extended arrangement later in the album. I guess in this instance the song is so nice, Justin serves it up twice.
Introspective soul-searching lyrics and an unrushed melody are the backbone of “The Western Sky,” complemented by the lightly strummed acoustic guitar and sweeping strings. It’s near seven-minute length gives the song time to float leisurely into your subconscious and provides mellow relief from life’s stress and strife. Lyrics of love and dreams hypnotically swathe the song with an atmosphere somewhere out there amongst the clouds.
“The Eastern Sun” is another slow gentle ballad with gentle crescendos and lovely strolling acoustic guitar. It’s a lullaby of sumptuous delicately fragile beauty. The lyrics read like a great poem with Hayward’s customary introspective brilliance packed with metaphoric references to nature. Working in close tandem, the lyrics and soothing music are quite lovely and utterly impressive.
Kenny Loggins co-wrote and supplied background vocals and rhythm guitar to bolster “On The Road To Love.” It is the most up-tempo rocker located on Spirits of the Western Sky and recalls the greatness of past Moody Blues output. The beguilingly simplistic catchy chorus hook is suggestive of “Higher and Higher.” Bracing electric guitar and a memorable driving melody help make this track one of the albums most satisfying.
The quite aptly titled “Lazy Afternoon” reminds me of Ray Thomas/Justin Hayward collaborations in days past, which is high praise (think of “Watching and Waiting”). It’s a light and breezy delight that extols the virtues of love eternal. His songwriting is timelessly classic, encapsulating sensuous nuances with peerless skill and angelic vocals.
“In the Beginning” continues the sublime and hauntingly euphoric music that is characteristic of Justin Hayward. The song lyrics of lost love are concise and beautiful in their straightforward ease; comparable to the cosmic sentiment penned by Paul McCartney (“And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make”). Hayward fully comprehends the power to touch another’s soul with the rightly chosen words. Here he conveys the message that love doesn’t always come easy. It requires overcoming obstacles, facing challenges, and holding on tight, all the while cherishing each fleeting moment. His extremely appealing guitar is straight from the heart emotive and adds further heady trimmings.
It’s easy to pick out which songs were recorded in Nashville. The three acoustic almost-bluegrass themed tunes play consecutively on cuts number eight, nine, and ten. The first, a Hayward song that was included on the Moody Blues 1983 album The Present is given a major makeover with a decidedly country treatment. “Cold Outside of Your Heart” is such a great song that it shines with either arrangement; although if you have heard the Moodies version I think you’ll agree that rendering was the definite arrangement. The Nashville musicians utilize dobro, banjo, fiddle, acoustic bass, and guitar as well as providing background vocals.
The second countrified song “What You Resist Will Persist,” with fiddle, mandolin, and dobro accompaniment is also pleasant and allows the notable Nashville cats to stretch out a bit with a more brisk pace. In my opinion, the song may have benefited from a duet with a female vocalist, giving it a shot at country radio placement.
The third rustic tune “Broken Dream,” is a yearning love ballad performed in country-waltz tempo, featuring some pretty mandolin and fiddle breaks. Originally appearing on The View From The Hill, Justin’s last solo outing in 1996, it remains a captivating experience that sounds wonderful no matter the handling. To Justin’s credit he does not attempt to alter his vocals by inserting a faux country twang. To do so would have ruined the genuineness and sincerity he constantly puts forth in his music.
Justin returns to more traditional soft-rock territory with “Captivated By You,” a beautiful stormy ballad. The Moody Blues, and Justin Hayward’s vocals in particular, have always had a polarizing effect on listeners. Either you feel like me that Justin’s vocal dynamics offer a musical euphoria, or the contrary, with some that believe them to be somewhat syrupy and over-sentimental.
The album closes with two dance remixes based on the Moody Blues hit “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere,” the opening track of the 1988 Moody Blues album Sur La Mer. They sound disjointed from the adjoining songs, but since they are placed together at the end it is easy to pass them by if that is your inclination. The album is of respectable length without the inclusion of the two electronic beat mashups.
Wordsworth’s definition of all good poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” could without doubt pertain to Justin Hayward’s music. The songs are paradigms to the many fine bliss-filled musical moments and memories that Hayward has provided during his purposeful and illustrious career. At first the songs may appear to be slightly low key. But, repeated listening will bring to light the great wealth contained therein. Spirits of the Western Sky will be enthusiastically embraced by Justin Hayward fans all around the globe. His art will forever continue to be a source of illumination of the world within us all.
Randall Parrish is a Senior Editor at Vivascene, with extensive publishing credits at various jazz and blues sites. He is also an avid guitar player whose musical knowledge of jazz, blues and roots music is widely respected. Based in Nevada, he can be reached by email here: RandallParrish@vivascene.com