I have a heard a lot about Phil Ochs as a songwriter and he has been recommended to me both by the critics I used to read and by friends of mine. Yet I have still managed to barely hear any of his songs, and usually only covers. Like so many other artists, his music just feel between the cracks of my listening habits.
But listening to this record, I cannot believe it took me this long to listen to him. From this set of songs, it’s clear to me Ochs is one of the best songwriters of his generation. Moreover, he might be one of the greatest English language songwriters ever, if this set of songs is at all representative of his songwriting.
So let’s get to the songs first: Ochs’ lyrics have the same acerbic bite of Dylan’s sharpest lyrics from his peak, only without Dylan’s extreme use of poetric language. Just because Ochs is more direct is not necessarily a criticism. Too many of the post-Dylan songwriters have embraced poetic imagery to the point where you cannot understand what the meaning is any more (or, worse, embraced it for the purpose of hiding the fact that they have nothing to say). Orchs’ directness is his strength as these are some sharp observations, sometimes as cutting as a standup comic. All the songs are excellent, some of which have basically vaulted into my own personal list of best songs ever. He is that great a songwriter.
The problem is the arrangements which, typical of the time, seem to attempt to drown the songs in mock-classical arrangements (save the last song). Most of the time, I am not sure the arrangements are complimentary. The exception is “The Party,” where it feels extremely appropriate to the subject matter. Most fo the rest of the time, one longs to hear a version performed just by Ochs.The arrangements remind me a bit of David Ackles only Ackles’ songs are super theatrical already, so they benefit from these types of arrangements. (It’s not that they’re all bad, and they’re well performed. I’m just not sure they serve the songs.)
This brings us to the most controversial arrangement, that of “The Crucifixion.” This song Ochs himself regarded as his best and a number of critics have also complemented it with such high esteem. (I wouldn’t know where it stands.) But the arrangement is almost (almost!) Frank Zappa-level bonkers in its embrace of contemporary classical music, the only thing keeping it from turning full blown into Mothers territory is Ochs’ own refusal to change his performance of the melody. It’s an odd, risky and probably bad decision. It does make sense given the time (though not given anything else on this record) and I believe I would have loved it had I discovered it at 19, instead of in my 30s. I should find a live version…
But, even with all the quibbles about the arrangements, this is a very, very song set of songs that makes me want to listen to everything he wrote. And I can’t help but give the album a very high rating, despite its dated arrangements.