The December 1998 issue of Stereo Review reviewed Bruce Hornsby’s Spirit Trail, and it was quite something. Also a look at the follow-up newsletter from Bruce’s office.
Stereo Review – December 1998 (featured as “Best of the Month” in Pop Music section)
There’s something awe-inspiring about a gifted, committed musician at the apex of his art. It’s as if he’s incapable of playing a false note or writing a mediocre song. Miracles can happen as long as the artist remains focused and receptive to the muse. Bruce Hornsby sustains such a spell throughout two discs on Spirit Trail (RCA, 91 min), one of the truly stellar albums of the decade.
It’s difficult to know just where to start heaping praise: the piano improvs that come spinning out like ten-fingered tornadoes, the delightful shock of the unexpected that Hornsby brings to his jazz-flavored pop compositions (or are they pop-flavored jazz compositions?), the evocations of the South, or the fact that he addresses his audience with a casual familiarity that refuses to short-sell its intelligence or attention span. The combination of all those assets with a particularly fecund bout of creativity sends Spirit Trail into a very high orbit. And among the 20 songs there are no soft spots or the sort of filler that drives critics to wish that the average double album had been edited down to a single disc.
This double album is a musing, philosophical work filled with tangible characters in real-world settings: the snake-handling charismatic Christian of “Preacher in the Ring,” the restless casts of “Funhouse” and “Pete and Manny,” the first-person narrator of “Sunlight Moon” (Hornsby himself?) regretfully having to leave the wife and kids to hit the road. Animating this world of people in motion is Hornsby’s startling inventive piano. In his agile, limber playing, you can hear a metaphor for a society hurtling along a fast track. Hornsby himself seems to enjoy the ride, imbuing his characters with great humanity and giving their transient movements an affectionate, Kerouac-like spin. Maybe it’s because he generously presumes that all of us, whether we know it or not, are on the spirit trail — a route of escape from evil, the notion deriving from Native American weavers who imprint maze-like designs on their work to assist trapped spirits.
Hornsby’s solos are not New Agey bon-bons but nicely engaging pieces of pretzel logic. The final minutes of “Sad Moon” are a busy, two-handed scamper, and the galloping, gallivanting “Preacher in the Ring Pt.1” is as frisky as a colt in an open field. A couple of songs, particularly “Resting Place” and “Line in the Dust,” have hit potential, evincing the wistful, achingly melodic complexion that previously carried Hornsby onto the charts (though, oddly, not since 1990).
Spirit Trail was largely recorded at Hornsby’s home studio just outside Williamsburg, Virginia, and it is the best argument I’ve yet heard against commuting to work. From this collection of fresh-sounding takes, it’s not hard to imagine Hornsby padding from the bedroom or the den to the studio whenever the light bulb switched on in his head. Judging from the virtuosity here, the lights were certainly on a great deal of the time in the Bruce Hornsby household. Most amazing, he makes it all sound easy.”
Bruce Hornsby Newsletter – Winter 1998-99 (November 30 1998)
Bruce’s 6th (& 7th) record(s) were released on October 13 to internet acclaim, “Bruce-is-too-smart-for-his-own-good” disdain (E-Weekly), record’s-good-but-Uncle Charles-bashing (Rolling Stone), 4-stars-this-is-smashing (San Francisco, Lexington, Boston, Detroit, Newark, Music Boulevard & others), very- insightful-this-guy-really-knows-music lauding (Musician), and thank-you-very-much-best-of-the- month-best-review-ever-received applauding (Stereo Review).
Letterman and Live with Regis and Kathy Lee sightings were pondered, perused and praised by the diehards, and more opportunities are in the offing: Austin City Limits (taping December 5), Jay Leno, Rosie O’Donnell and other notables in 1999.