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Full Circle

Rupert Holmes
FULL CIRCLE

In 1974, an unknown twenty-seven year old tunesmith recorded and released the almost-perfect pop album. The artist called himself Rupert Holmes (an ear-catching pseudonym), and called the record “Widescreen”. “Widescreen” was filled with stately, catchy, sweepingly cinematic and heavily orchestrated story-songs (a genre termed “Film Rock” by Mr. Holmes)—both Hollywood- and American songbook-inspired, but with a strong and savvy Beatles, Nilsson, and Jeff Lynne modernist melodicism at their core—that explored with great humor and lyrical bite the tail-end of adolescent neurosis, self-doubt, and romantic fumbling in a variety of musical and dramatic settings, the clever wordplay and Broadway-bound urban sophistication of which belied their author’s humble roots in the tiny exurban enclave of Nanuet, New York.

“Almost-perfect” because, even though every one of the album’s nine songs was meticulously assembled and subtly, engagingly performed, the last track, “Psycho Drama” was not a song at all, but rather a ten-minute Maltese Falcon-inspired radio play, humorous and clever to be sure, but depriving the listener of two or three more samples of Holmes’ mastery of the short-story-in-pop-song form. “Widescreen” went largely unnoticed by the record-buying public (though not by Barbra Streisand, who recruited Holmes to work on her Lazy Afternoon record), but Holmes soldiered on, releasing about an album a year through the remainder of the seventies and into the early eighties.

1975’s “Rupert Holmes” was his slightly less ambitious (though no less engaging) follow-up to “Widescreen”, which, in turn, was followed by 1976’s more conventional “Singles”, exploring Holmes’s brightening worldview while easing up on the humor, the story-song form, and the sweeping majesty of the arrangements.

Returning to the ambitiousness of his solo debut, 1978’s “Pursuit of Happiness” was originally slated as a concept album exploring Holmes’ precocious, plaintive nostalgia for his small town roots (he was all of thirty-one, after all). To be cleverly titled “Town Square”, the idea was rejected by his label, and several upbeat, chart-targeted tracks were substituted, thus fracturing the album in two, and spoiling the mood (not that the album isn’t magnificently recorded, arranged, and sung, mind you; “Guitars” is breathtaking, and “The Long Way Home”, “Town Square”, and “The Old School” are among the most achingly beautiful hometown reminiscences one is likely to encounter in song).

In 1979, Holmes brought his urban sense of humor back to the fore, and finally hit the charts with his jazz/vamp/groove-heavy “Partners In Crime”, featuring his toss-off monster hit, “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” (Clifford T. Ward’s “Escalator” single would seem the British analog to the proceedings herein). Also charting were the more impressive “Him” and “Answering Machine” (a lyrical re-write of "Widescreen"'s "Letters That Cross In The Mail"), though the album’s two best tracks—the ballads “Nearsighted” and “The People That You Never Get To Love”—were never to spin at 45 rpm.

With a big hit record under his belt, Holmes choked: on 1980’s “Adventure”, the lion’s share of tracks were strident and anxious-sounding, permanently sabotaging his romance with the charts, and thus relegating Holmes to the wholly undeserved status of one-hit-wonder, though "The O'Brien Girl" seems a plaintive lost cousin to the aborted "Town Square" record, while "I Don't Need You" is Mr. Holmes' answer to 10cc's "I'm Not In Love".

Still, Holmes had more than a little music left in him. In 1981, he dusted himself off, marched back into the studio, and recorded his masterpiece. Throwing caution to the wind, Holmes was apparently no longer interested in storming the charts with a snappy, clever trifle (been there, done that). Instead, the album he delivered, titled “Full Circle”, is the only full-fledged concept album of his career. Not a collection of four-minute self-contained story-songs of love and loss, Holmes instead stretches the theme of a single romantic relationship across the entire two sides of the LP. Consequently, it is not the case that any individual song is wholly satisfying in terms of telling a complete story as in the old days, but that’s not the intent here. Rather, the album unfolds as a novel, each song revealing a little bit more—another facet of love, another observation (or two) on life—about our protagonists’ evolving relationship.

Most impressive, however, are the remarkable orchestrations accompanying the silky, slip-and-slidey melodies. Fully indulging his prodigious writing and arranging acumen, along with the requisite modern pop rhythm section and soaring (though never ostentatious) guitar solos, Holmes presents each and every track on “Full Circle” as a mid-tempo ballad, many being lushly orchestrated with full charts for strings, winds, and brass, along with ravishing super-tight three-part harmonies (mostly a multi-tracked Holmes) gracing the sumptuous backing vocals, that are downright Wilsonian in their marriage of precision and passion, detail and drama. The Beach Boys aside, if there is anything comparable in the pop canon that explores the sonic and thematic terrain of “Full Circle”, it is Paddy McAloon’s (Prefab Sprout’s), masterful “Andromeda Heights” album from 1997, a similarly magnificent extravaganza of lush pop romanticism.

With Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and even Ludwig van Beethoven references abounding, unsurprisingly, “Full Circle” did not stir the public out of their La-Z-Boys and into the record shops, and Holmes ended the singer-songwriter chapter of his novelistic career shortly thereafter, eventually donning multiple hats as TV writer (Remember WENN), Broadway playwright (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Accomplice, Goodnight Gracie, Curtains, etc.) and, more recently, hit mystery novel writer (Where The Truth Lies, Swing). Holmes's one venture back to the pop auteur days of his youth came in 1994, with the Japan-only “Scenario” cd, a fine collection that makes one wish he would more often revisit his self-proclaimed “first love” of writing pitch-perfect pop. Whaddaya say, Rupe?

 

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