Traffic’s fifth album, released in 1970, could just as easily have been titled Where Were We?
Steve Winwood, the mellifluous keyboardist and gravel-throated singer of this ensemble forged in the fires of psychedelia, had veered off into supergroup Blind Faith and a solo career but found them both dead ends. John Barleycorn Must Die started out as a solo Winwood work before he decided that what he actually wanted was to be back with his old Traffic colleagues Chris Wood (woodwind) and Jim Capaldi (drums), though not Dave Mason.
Guitarist and songwriter Mason had a difficult relationship with the group that had already seen him depart and return before their previous split and his chart-friendly fare like Hole in my Shoe, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush and Feelin’ Alright? were hardly going to fit in with the musical visions of a band about to unleash an LP containing just six tracks.
Opening an album with a near-seven-minute jazzy instrumental may sound about as listener-unfriendly as can be, but Glad is rather enjoyable. The percolating keyboards, smoky saxophone, fluttering flute and funky percussion set the tone for the record, as does the musicianship, whose impeccable quality doesn't prohibit grit.
In its length and swells and respites, Freedom Rider is more of the same, only with some soulful Winwood vocals. Empty Pages – relatively tight structure, relatively short playing time of under five minutes – is the closest thing to a pop track. Apart from the Winwood-written opener, John Barleycorn Must Die is the only cut that’s not a Winwood/Capaldi collaboration, being a centuries-old celebration of nature. It’s intriguing, even haunting in places, if overlong.
By the time we get to the closing seven-minute Every Mother's Son, though, we feel we’ve been here before and excellent musicianship is not quite enough to disguise the meandering and the marginal differentiation. It’s perhaps understandable that Mason was not part of the new Traffic, but the undeniable conclusion with which we are left is that his ability to write focused tunes and to know when the point has been made are the main things John Barleycorn Must Die lacks.
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