BRUCE HORNSBY: SPIRIT TRAIL ESSAY
By Parke Puterbaugh
There exist many albums that are so good they’ll instantly make you sit up in your chair and take notice. A rare few albums are so extraordinary that your first exposure will cause you to fall off the chair completely.
Such an album is Bruce Hornsby’s Spirit Trail. It positively crackles with life, verve, creativity and virtuosity. The first time I heard it I was mind-blown. I loved all his previous work but didn’t see this double-disc dynamo coming. Apparently a lot of other Hornsby heads feel the same way, because Spirit Trail remains the consensus favorite from his gem-filled bounty of thirteen studio albums as a solo artist and bandleader.
Spirit Trail received a strong reception from critics when it came out in 1998, winding up on many “best of year” lists. “Bold and adventurous… an engaging listen,” exclaimed one critic. “Some of the funkiest songs he’s ever recorded,” wrote another. “Ferocious funk, free-form piano, evocative lyrics, Spirit Trail is extraordinary music – the best album this year,” trumpeted a third.
Hardcore fans and critics were solidly in Hornsby’s corner with this album. The broader public, however, largely missed it. Whereas Hornsby’s previous five albums peaked at #3, 5, 20, 46 and 68 on the Billboard chart, Spirit Trail topped out at #148. It remains a mystery that the best album by a well-established artist like Hornsby basically flew under the radar.
One might hazard a few guesses as to why that was the case. When you look at the musical landscape in 1998, it was very different from when Hornsby debuted twelve years earlier with the triple-platinum album The Way It Is, which yielded major hits with the title track (#1) and “Mandolin Rain” (#4). The year 1998 was dominated by female artists, including Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Alanis Morrissette and all of the singer-songwriters in the Lilith Fair brigade. On the rap side, Jay-Z, Kid Rock and their like were ruling the roost. Rock was skewing hard and heavy, with groups like Metallica, Korn and Godsmack making a big noise. Where was there a place for a virtuoso pianist and songwriter like Bruce Hornsby in this tangle, even if he was incorporating newly minted elements of funk and electronica into his work?
Perhaps some were confused by the cover, a photograph of an older man (Hornsby’s Uncle Charles) with a cigarette sticking out of his ear. Maybe Spirit Trail was simply too much of a good thing: a double-CD with a generous 20 songs that ran for an hour and a half. Outside of the Grateful Dead’s world, double albums are always a harder sell with their higher list prices, even though Spirit Trail retailed for $19.98 – just a few dollars more than a single CD. A bargain, in other words.
The album was an embarrassment of riches, which made it hard to pick a single. The record company went with “Great Divide” because it had a fiddle and horn on it, just like the work of the then-ascendent Dave Matthews Band. It’s a great song with a classic Hornsby feel, albeit with different instrumentation, but it didn’t stick to the charts. Hornsby’s managers lobbied for “Line in the Dust,” another striking tune but with more of a hip-hop rhythm and elements of electronica percolating within. Hornsby notes that “See the Same Way,” which also had a modern feel accompanying a set of sharp, empathetic lyrics addressing racial divides, entered the conversation as well. If asked, I would’ve gone with “Resting Place,” which has the unmistakable gleam and chime of Hornsby’s piano playing and a killer chorus. In a strange sort of way, Spirit Trail was almost too good, an album brimming with more musical delights than one could easily get a handle on.
Even though the album found Hornsby raising the already elevated bar for himself as a musician, it was not inaccessible by any means. Hornsby had addressed himself to the challenge of mastering two-handed independence on the keyboard. That was no easy feat, and Hornsby worked diligently for months to pull it off. But while the fruits of those labors are most assuredly difficult to play, they are accessible to the ear and easy to listen to. Just check out Spirit Trail’s opening track, “King of the Hill,” which is like a precis for the adventurous spirit of the entire album. The song instantly pulls you into its orbit. Like the first heart-stopping plunge of roller-coaster down a steep grade, Hornsby is off and running with his jaw-dropping “how-does-he-do-it?” piano acrobatics.
Hornsby has wryly described his style as “Bill Evans meets the hymnbook.” I think what he means is that he’s fundamentally fusing jazz and gospel elements. The jazz side of it reflects his immersion in the work of such brilliant, boundary-breaking pianists as Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and McCoy Tyner. The gospel side alludes to his Southern upbringing and those inspirational, ringing chords one would always hear pouring out of black and white churches below the Mason-Dixon line on Sunday mornings. That gospel feel found its way into the work of Leon Russell, another of Hornsby’s early influences. Add to all this a consuming interest in everything from the classical works of French Impressionists like Ravel and Debussy to the more outré sounds of modern composers like Ligeti and Ives, and you have a sense of the expansive vocabulary Hornsby has brought to his music. He has described himself as a “restless soul,” and his work bears that out.
It’s all there to be heard on Spirit Trail, a late 20th century classic that is receiving a welcome reissue on the event of its 25th anniversary. If you missed it the first time, here’s your chance to make its acquaintance. If you already are familiar with it, you’ll want to hear it again in its remastered and expanded format.
Spirit Trail is ripe for rediscovery. As I used to tell people, “Listen to this. Once you hear it, you’ll want to own it. It sells itself.”www.brucehornsby.com/