It’s funny how matters of musical significance sort themselves out over time—this is important because x, this isn’t, because y, et cetera—and there’s little better evidence of this than the continued obscurity of Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies. A loose collective of West Coast studio musicians presided over by experimental musician/composer Joseph Byrd, the group has always been overshadowed by Byrd’s previous project, The United States of America. Each group only ever released one studio album, but where The United States Of America has gone on to retrospective acclaim as one of the greatest albums of the ‘60s, The American Metaphysical Circus never broke out in the same way. Why?
Well, for starters, it’s redundant to the narrative: The United States works best as a singular achievement, and its particular blend of electronic modulation and psych-rock doesn’t beg for a follow-up. People already had one United States; they didn’t need another. As well, where the USA’s album was across-the-board experimental and forward thinking, The American Metaphysical Circus is strange more in its context than its content—whimsical sing-alongs juxtaposed with twisted psychedelia, for instance. Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies were undeniably a more fluid act than the United States (both in lineup and style) and this album shows it; where the USA put forth a musical palette and let it carry the listener along, the Field Hippies album turns on a dime.
Now, you might be wondering why I’m spending so much time illustrating the differences between the two projects. Frankly, it’s because I’m tired of hearing The American Metaphysical Circus put down as an inferior attempt to replicate The United States Of America’s success—Byrd revealing just how much he needed the other members of the band. The albums have different aesthetics, different aims—even, to some extent, different tones. Where The United States was dense, weird, and often frightening, The American Metaphysical Circus is lighter, looser, and more scattershot, I think to its benefit. It’s a different project, lesser in some ways, but that doesn’t mean it can be dismissed out of hand. It’s a great album in its own right, and deserves more consideration than it’s so far been afforded.
All that said, on with the review.
The album is divided up into four suites of material—basically, mini-concept albums, each with an overarching aesthetic or theme tying its songs together. The first, The Sub-Sylvian Litanies, is both the most overtly psychedelic part of the album, and the one that most recalls Byrd’s work with the United States. “Moonsong: Pelog,” in particular, is a clear attempt to recall the soft, gauzy quality of Dorothy Moskowitz’s singing; Susan De Lange does a serviceable job here, but her finest moment is undoubtedly on “You Can’t Ever Come Down,” where her arrogant, androgynous tones ground the track in a way Moskowitz would never have been able to manage. The American Metaphysical Circus as a whole is far more down-to-earth than its predecessor, and there’s no better example of this than the aforementioned “You Can’t Ever Come Down.” The song has its roots in an earlier USA track, “You Can Never Come Down,” which Byrd apparently updated and rerecorded for this album. The compositions are practically identical, but look at how it’s altered for the Field Hippies version: warped violin replaced with searing guitar, carnivalesque keyboards replaced with a wall of background noise the melody seems to ride in on. It’s a wonderful track on its own, but juxtaposed with the earlier take, it really hammers in just what Byrd was bringing to the table for this album.
The second suite, American Bedmusic I, is where all the album’s “political” material resides, most notably the off-kilter, rollicking “Nightmare Train” and jeering piano rocker “Invisible Man.” It’s by far the most conventional segment of the album (with the possible exception of “Patriot’s Lullaby”) and as a consequence, probably the weakest—the songs are uniformly enjoyable, but there’s little here that couldn’t have been performed by a dozen other psychedelic acts of the time. Byrd’s experimental tendencies are largely subsumed in favor of straight songwriting; results are mostly positive, but it’s clear that he’s not playing to his strengths. The lyrics here (and throughout the album) are generally more straightforward than on The United States, with each song settling on a single concept and running with it throughout—this as opposed to the USA’s delicate, druggy stream-of-consciousness. Not to say it can’t still be trippy—just look at any song off The Sub-Sylvian Litanies or “The Elephant At The Door”—just more focused overall.
Gospel Music For A. R. Byrd III consists of one song, the aptly titled “Gospel Music.” It’s easily the best of the more accessible tracks here, with its good-times organ melody and brassy horn arrangement; an instrumental, it serves as a good segue between suites, not to mention proof that Byrd could write straight-faced genre entries as easily as winking pastiches.
The final suite, The Southwestern Geriatric Arts and Crafts Festival, is by a pretty wide margin the weirdest thing on the album. It’s the part where I went from enjoying The American Metaphysical Circus, to loving it; for you, it might well be the point that Byrd’s ambition devolves into kitschy excess. The suite ranges from kooky pastiche (“The Sing-Along Song”) to warped psychedelic rock (“The Elephant At The Door”) to surreal, ad-jingly musique concrete (“Leisure World”) and back again. Both the most inconsistent stretch of the album and the most experimental, it’s probably the farthest removed from any of Byrd’s earlier work. The theme here is of course old age and death, oddly communicated with the most cheerful set of tracks by far. A reprise of “The Sing-Along Song” brings the album to a gentle (if somewhat creepy) close, and makes one wonder where Byrd would have gone had he continued in this vein.
This whole sequence of songs displays a sort of throwback-psychedelia aesthetic, largely eschewing the electronics present on the other suites in favor of instrumentation that would sound more appropriate a few decades earlier. It’s intricate and formal in a way most psych-rock of the time isn’t—more surreal than overtly trippy. What The American Metaphysical Circus presents is a literary high, impeccably orchestrated while simultaneously darting wherever its fancy takes it. This kind of detachment can be what turns a lot of people off of this album—the sense that the artists are just fucking around to no real end. If you aren’t wholly engaged in everything that’s going on, something like “The Sing-Along Song” can easily come across as a joke on the listener; sort of a “let’s see how much of this you’ll take seriously” kind of thing.
The American Metaphysical Circus is, as its title promises, an odd mishmash of ideas: the political, the mystical, and the childish all thrown together into a collection of seemingly unconnected suites. And that’s really where the record’s genius lies: by making no pretensions to cohesion or consistency, it somehow ties everything together better than any framing device could have. It really does sound like a circus—a collection of wildly varying acts, some looking to the past, others firmly grounded in the present, and still others thinking forward to the future. In that way, it displays far more ambition than The United States Of America ever did, and even if the USA ended up better fulfilling that promise, The American Metaphysical Circus still stands as a testament to Joseph Byrd’s truly unparalleled musical vision.
Essential Listening: You Can’t Ever Come Down, Patriot’s Lullabye, The Elephant At the Door