Grateful Dead – American Beauty (1970)
Bottom Line Up Front: This is a 5 out of 5 stars album. To really appreciate how good this album is, let me explain how I organize albums by quality into 6 Levels. Keep in mind this has nothing to do with my star ratings.
Level 0: First, we have the lowest level of music. This is any Fall Out Boy album released after they got back together. FOB’s new album, American Beauty/American Psycho, is the perfect example of Level 0. This is music so terrible it makes you disgusted with the entire music industry any time you hear it.
Level 1: Next, we have music that is slightly better, which are songs written by Staind’s frontman, Aaron Lewis. This music can sometimes stand on its own, but you’d rather mix this level of songs with artists who can actually write lyrics that aren’t so generic they could just as easily apply to your cat as they do to you.
Level 2: Above that you have albums you could probably do without, but if you heard them on the bus, you aren’t going to be annoyed by it. You might even like it if you have a particular fondness for a given genre. This is where the majority of music is probably going to fall for most people. Ten years from now you won’t even remember it existed unless you happen to run into it on YouTube when you were looking for that one song by that guy who had a hit that one summer. It had that crazy video with the thing. You know what I’m talking about.
Level 3: Then you have the albums you need to check out. Maybe it’s the next big thing, but probably isn’t. However, it’s got enough attention in general or perhaps a close friend has been raving about it for the past two months that now is the time you should click on the YouTubes and check it out. Regardless, there’s a good chance that it is worth your time. Besides the latest and greatest of music, it could also be a highly influential album from several decades back that only now is getting the recognition it rightfully deserves. Songs like Avalanches – Frontier Psychiatrist come to mind for Level 3.
Level 4: After that is a significant step up in the quality of music. This level is made up of albums that you must listen to before you die. These are classics that have stood the test of time. Even twenty or thirty years later, they are very much relevant and still very much amazing. They often redefine a genre or create whole new ones. They routinely astound a new generation once discovered. Albums like that are usually found on a list with others of a similar caliber. I would place a good chunk of the Beatles’ discography here as well as Led Zeppelin’s.
Level 5: And finally there are what I call Deathbed albums. These are albums so fundamentally perfect they are worthy of being the last music you consume before ceasing to exist in our universe. This is a significantly smaller group than the Must Listen to Before You Die level. It is also a much more personal list as the album has to really resonate with you. The opinions of friends, family and critics cease to matter at this point. What does the music do inside your auditory cerebral cortex after entering your inner ear canal and is transformed into electrical nerve impulses by the hair cells in your cochlea? That’s what matters here. If you forced my back against a wall, I could probably only name a handful of albums that would qualify for this elite category. But American Beauty would without hesitation or contemplation be included.
Artist Background: The Grateful Dead started in 1965 in Palo Alto, California. They were highly influential in the development of the jam band. In 1994, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was a year before they officially ended touring in 1995. They even have one of their concerts from 1977 in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. With a lineup spanning thirty years, there are quite a few band members but the main members include Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan and Bill Kreutzmann. Jerry Garcia is a very well-recognized name in the music world. If a person knows anybody from the band, it’s Jerry. They don’t name ice cream after just anybody. The band earned a cult following of people known as Deadheads who would make every effort to see as many shows as possible. Deadheads have been portrayed as acid dropping, weed smoking hippies who do nothing to benefit society by the media, but an actual analysis of the Deadhead movement paints quite a different picture of their members. Many of them hold professional or white collar jobs, a graduate or college degree and a high level of income. The group experience of a Grateful Dead concert seems to be something quite magical that I wish I could have experienced. I also like to note that the Grateful Dead were very recording friendly. They even went so far as to set up a section for fans who wanted to record the concert and Garcia is quoted as saying “When we are done with it [the concerts], they can have it.” Thankfully there are still bands around today like Wilco that fully embrace fans recording their concerts.
Album Background: American Beauty is a folk rock album released in late 1970. It has a runtime of about 42 minutes. It was recorded over a period of two months. The most mind blowing thing about this album is that it was recorded and came out the same year as their previous album, Workingman’s Dead. Start thinking about your favorite modern bands. What’s the average time between album? What are the odds of them releasing two full length albums in a year? Now throw on top of that the odds of them putting out back to back critically acclaimed albums that will hold up for decades after. Do you understand now why I am so freaking amazed by American Beauty? If not, let’s throw some statistics at you. It was ranked 258 by Rolling Stone for the 500 greatest Albums of All Time list. NARM placed it 20 in their Definitive 200 Albums list. Not too shabby. While early albums struggled with using the studio to recreate the Dead’s concert experience, American Beauty is some of the finest studio work they ever put out. If you have any interest in starting a musical journey with the Dead, this is absolutely the place to start.
Favorite Track: For the sake of picking one, I will pick one. But don’t expect me to say this is my favorite track next year or even tomorrow. Every track on this album is worthy of being a favorite track. For today, let’s go with the song that got me interested in the Grateful Dead: Box of Rain. I was finally convinced that I must listen to them by the last episode of Freeks and Geeks where the main character, Lindsay Weir, is also introduced to them. There is a very memorable scene where she plays American Beauty in her bedroom. The song was composed by the band’s bassist, Phil Lesh, who composed it for his father who was dying of terminal cancer. In addition, the song is also sung by him and is the first song to feature his vocals. Robert Hunter, who wrote many of the lyrics on this album, also wrote the lyrics for Box of Rain. The song is interesting in terms of lyrics as the song makes no mention of a box of rain until towards the end where it is heavily referenced. Box of rain actually refers to our world. The lyrics are beautifully crafted and emotionally powerful with numerous metaphors of life and the journey towards death in which we all participate. References to water are abound as it is a critical component of life itself. It appropriately ends with the lines “Such a long long time to be gone, And a short time to be there” which masterfully captures our transient reality and hopefully inspires the listener to make the most of our “short time” while we can.
- Pacing The pacing of this album is great. It does a wonderful job switching between slow and medium tempo songs. I never ever get bored listening to it. Playing American Beauty on repeat was an absolute pleasure.
- Lyrics The lyrics on this album are phenomenal. While incredibly complex word play is one of the quickest ways to my musical heart, simple words can be equally effective if done right. That is the case here. I’m particularly fond of Friend of the Devil. It tells the story of a man running from the law and the Devil as well. He is desperately seeking sleep as he spends most of his nights on the run. In addition to missing sleep, he is also missing his loved ones. It paints such a vivid picture. I feel the nervousness of his uncertainty and the wondering of how long can he possibly keep up such a seemingly hopeless task. This is one of many songs where the lyrics include very specific references that give them a sense of reality. Another example of this is Candyman which includes the lyrics “Good Mornin Mr. Benson, I see you’re doin well, If I had me a shotgun, I’d blow you straight to Hell” which gets you wondering who is this Mr. Benson? Why is he so important that he should be mentioned by name? Now the song is working on a completely different level.
- Instruments The playing on this is as equally amazing to me as the vocals. But what I can’t get over is how well the instruments complement the vocals and each other. Every instrument feels critical to making the song what it is. I especially love the guitar parts playing against each other. This observation applies to any of the songs on the album. If you really want to soak this in, listen to the album with a pair of headphones.
Don’t make me laugh. If you think there’s any kind of flaw with this album, you’re out of your damn mind.
In Conclusion: Unfortunately, this experiment is being done alphabetically by album title so it’s going to be many years before I review American Beauty’s sister album, Workingman’s Dead. In case I don’t get to it, I highly recommend you listen to it after you start your love affair with the Grateful Dead classic, American Beauty. If you’re still not convinced you’re missing out on something, go watch the Freaks and Geeks clip again.
In case you weren’t aware, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead this year. They are going to reunite at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 3rd through 5th of this summer. This will be 20 years since they last played a concert together and it will be at the same venue as their last concert!
Music Video Links:
This album predates music videos so I don’t have any to list. There’s some live footage of their concerts on YouTube though if you look.