John Denver gets made fun of a lot, and there’s valid reason to laugh at him…he never really grew out of the tree-hugging Hippie phase of his youth, and people like that are naturally going to be targets of ridicule by the time they’re in their thirties and forties (he was 53 years old when he died, after all). Still, he was one of the greatest Soft Rockers of the Seventies (a decade that had far more competition for that title than, say, the Eighties or Nineties), and his poetic eloquence and phenomenal gift for melody have to be respected.
Besides, you have to admire how he transformed the musical influences he started from into something artistically valid. His uncle had been a member of manufactured Pop-Folk sensations The New Christy Minstrels, and Denver took their artificial faux-Folk Music style and used it to make music so legitimate that real Folk artists like Peter, Paul and Mary actually wanted to cover his songs.
“Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” had already been a massive hit in Peter, Paul, and Mary’s cover version at this point, but this is the album that really made Denver a star, and it is without question his Magnum Opus. Of Denver’s other three massive hit albums from his peak period, Rocky Mountain High has some beautiful melodies, but is a bit excessively morose, given that its concept is essentially a brooding meditation on the destruction of the environment. His best-selling record, Back Home Again, has some lovely items like “Annie’s Song”, but also some excessively forced attempts to sound “down-home” like “Grandma’s Feather Bed” that are almost embarrassing. Finally, his highest-charting album, Windsong, is just as exquisite melodically as this record, but as its concept is an ode to natural beauty, it is by definition about inanimate things, things that cannot think and feel, and so it cannot compete with this record’s emotional impact.
The most famous song on the album is easily “Take Me Home, Country Road”. This song has always been Denver’s most universally beloved hit: even people who absolutely hate John Denver (and that demographic is larger than you’d expect) are generally willing to make an exception for this particular song. This seems a natural reaction, given the song’s exquisite melodic and poetic beauty, but it is surprising in one regard: among the co-authors credited on this song are two members of the Starland Vocal Band, perhaps the single most despised Soft Rock act in history (and one whose negative reputation is, to be frank, pretty much justified). That the people who can otherwise count the unspeakably vile “Afternoon Delight” as one of their better songwriting efforts could have contributed to this phenomenal Pop-Folk classic is hard to even remotely comprehend, but evidently true nonetheless.
That said, there are several other songs on the album that almost equal “Take Me Home, Country Road” for sheer beauty. Its overall Concept regards being contented and at peace with the cycles of time, as in the exquisitely meditative and profound title track, or the tenderly reassuring love song “Sweet Lady”.
Denver did include one moderately angry uptempo number, the Native American rights anthem “Wooden Indian”, presumably to keep the listener from nodding off from the album’s lullaby-esque overall sound. There’s even an attempt at Seventies ‘Jesus-Rock’ in the Larry Norman vein, “Gospel Changes”. That said, it’s more detached from actual religious conviction than Norman’s work…written less from the perspective of a devout Christian and more from that of an objective observer who sees merit in Jesus’ philosophy.
The material here isn’t exclusively composed by Denver himself: there are also three covers included, but they fit beautifully into the album’s concept. Indeed, Denver’s version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” seems to fit in better with the overall theme on this record than it did on the Beatles album that bears its name. Denver also covers a much more obscure Paul McCartney composition, a quietly melancholy atmosphere piece called “Junk”, and it winds up being one of the most beautiful items on the album.
Denver’s cover of “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor, on the other hand, seems to have gained a controversial reputation, given that it takes a very different approach to the song than the original recording. But while Taylor’s original version is a very powerful Folk-Rock ballad, the quieter, more elegiac sorrow on Denver’s version is arguably even more heartbreaking, giving an impression of a lost and defeated resignation that is actually much sadder than Taylor’s still-defiant rendition.
Of course, even the best Denver albums always have a couple of corny moments, and this is no exception. The second hit from the album, the irritatingly naïve “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, is the kind of John Denver song his detractors always point toward in order to make fun of him, and while it fits in well enough with the overall concept, it is still easily the weakest item here.
“The Box”, the other easy-to-mock item here, is a spoken-word piece of very dated Hippie poetry regarding the nature of war. It’s not as painful as it sounds…it’s actually kind of charming in a way, somewhat resembling a much shorter version of Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book. But without the eloquence that his rhapsodic music always brought to his sentiments, Denver’s naïve Hippie worldview is ultimately revealed as the pretentious nonsense that it is—for all its charm and sincerity, there’s no denying that this poem is ultimately an appalling oversimplification of complex issues based on wishful thinking and the desire for easy answers that just don’t exist.
Even with these two lesser tracks, however, this is easily one of the greatest Soft Rock albums ever made, and one Denver never quite equaled as an overall cohesive album statement in all the remainder of his career. It certainly makes for one of the most moving and emotionally satisfying listening experiences I’ve personally ever encountered in any musical field, and to anyone who seeks it out after reading this review, if you don’t cry at least once while listening to this album, I will be extraordinarily surprised.