In light of founding member Glenn Frey’s tragic passing and the band’s supposedly permanent final breakup as a result, I thought I would contribute something to the conversation on the Eagles, a band as widely known, loved, and hated as any you could name.
Now, the Eagles have a reputation as a primarily single-oriented band indulged heavily in album filler, and sometimes that reputation was not entirely unwarranted (the last album of their heyday, The Long Run, being the most obvious example), but it certainly doesn’t apply to all their albums, and this is a case in point. While it doesn’t contain as many famous highlights as their self-titled debut or One of These Nights, this is probably the Eagles’ most acclaimed album next to Hotel California, proving that its whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.
It is often called a ‘concept album’, and while many critics dispute this notion, their complaints largely arise from confusion about what the term ‘concept album’ really means. To a modern audience, it usually calls to mind an album with a plotted narrative like Tommy or The Wall, but in reality, concept albums date back to Frank Sinatra’s themed albums of standards in the Fifties and Sixties, and are properly defined as any album with a strong unifying idea tying all the songs together. Desperado has only a very loose narrative structure that drops out entirely for much of the album, but it has a very strong thematic concept…using imagery out of the Old West as a metaphor for people (mostly men) who fetishize their own loneliness and try to pretend that they’re fiercely independent outlaws rather than pathetic lost souls.
In bringing this buried despair into the emotional forefront, the band created some of the most moving songs of their career, including the heartbreaking “Tequila Sunrise”, the softly wistful “Saturday Night”, and above all else, the legendary title-song, which perfectly sums up the emotional truth at the heart of the album. Other highlights include the laconic, threatening “Bitter Creek”, with its slow, simmering suggestion of menace, and the scornful swagger of the posturing “Outlaw Man”. And for a band so often written off as Soft Rock wimps by their detractors, “Out of Control” is without a doubt the hardest, most uninhibited rocker the Eagles would create until at least the Hotel California album, and arguably not even then. And while there may not be all that much explicitly plotted narrative on this album, the grandly tragic closing track, a continuation of the opening “Doolin-Dalton” followed by a reprise of the title track, certainly feels like an epic finale to a genuine drama. There’s even a vague hint that the album might have been to some extent written about the band members themselves, in “Certain Kind of Fool”, a string of double-meaning metaphors that simultaneously described a Western outlaw learning to shoot and a professional musician teaching himself to play the guitar, all in pursuit of the specter of fame and notoriety.
Ironically enough, as Seinfeld famously parodied, the album has become for some men an emblem of the very loneliness-worshiping mindset it was trying to deconstruct, but then again, it’s far from the first great work of art to be completely misinterpreted by some people. That said, this is still one of the great concept albums of the Rock genre, and if you’re looking to explore the Eagles beyond their ubiquitous Greatest Hits collection, this is as good a place to start as any.