Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


Album Assignments: Breakfast In America

This week, my friend Robby wrote me with a suggestion. “A weekly adventure,” he called it. The game is to take turns assigning each other an album to listen to, on a weekly basis, and on Monday he gave me my first assignment: Breakfast In America by Supertramp. I am up for this kind of fun, and I decided to go one better and write a little bit about the albums too, at least when the spirit moves me.

Breakfast In America was a really big album. Huge. But it was really big in 1979, a few years before I was really dialed into music. Consequently, my impressions of it from the time are glancing. I remember seeing a big display in a mall record store and thinking, “What’s with the lady and the tray? Is that orange juice?” Hey, I was 9. Anyway, once I was in high school I revisited the record, thanks to the public library, and came to really love it, and also to appreciate its fantastically clever cover. It’s also one of my favorite albums in the world to sing — I had such a great time this week rocking out to it. Anyway, I’ve been living with this album for many years, and know the songs pretty well, but it’s not one of those albums I know backwards and forwards. That comes into play in a moment.

See, I first tried listening via Spotify, but forgot that unless you pay Spotify some money every month, it throws commercials at you every 3 songs. Not a big bother when you’re listening to it like radio, but a major annoyance when you’re trying to appreciate an album. Then I remembered I have the album on my iPod, and was soon happily playing it in my car. But something seemed a little… off. I knew all the songs, but I must have misremembered the running order. I was composing paragraphs in my head about how peculiar it was to have “Take the Long Way Home” as the third song on the album, and how “Just Another Nervous Wreck” was a strange closer, and so on, until I finally realized (after a couple of times through, mind you) that my iPod was on shuffle mode. D’OH!

That experience led me to appreciate just how good the running order is on this album. Not something I normally notice, but it’s beautifully crafted. The long slow buildup of “Gone Hollywood” kicks off Side 1 (remember, this was put together when albums still had sides), matched by the long slow buildup of “Take The Long Way Home”, which opens side 2. “Gone Hollywood” has another companion piece, too — the album begins and ends with the only two songs co-written by the band’s two songwriters, Rick Davies (no relation to Ray or Dave) and Roger Hodgson. On the first side (after “Gone Hollywood”), Davies and Hodgson alternate songs, and on the second side they each get a pair of songs, before combining in “Child Of Vision”, which expresses itself as a conversation (or argument) between the two of them.

Album cover for Breakfast In America

About those two. Davies and Hodgson have very different voices, very different sensibilities, and they complement each other beautifully in this band. This time through, they were feeling like expressions of elemental Earth and Air to me. Davies is very rooted in the physical, its pleasures and hardships, and sings in an earthy baritone. Hodgson, on the other hand, is much more spiritual, and sings in a voice two steps from the angels. They’re both great songwriters, and the interplay between them sets up a tension that makes the songs and the overall album feel really dynamic.

In the end, I tend to gravitate towards Hodgson over Davies, though I do appreciate Davies, even if I’m not always sure what he’s up to. “Goodbye Stranger” seems like such a quintessential expression of silk-shirted, hairy-chested, medallion-wearing 1970s playboy masculinity that I can’t quite tell whether he’s parodying the character or embodying him. Most of the way through, he’s smoothly defending being a womanizing commitment-phobe, but there’s a moment, at about 4:30, when the whole thing feels like it drops off a cliff into an unsettling minor key, casting a shadow of doubt on every claim. Then the propulsive beat kicks back in, and a guitar solo streaks down the road, following the character to his next conquest.

Still, when it comes right down to it, for me, Breakfast In America is about two songs, both by Hodgson: “The Logical Song” and “Take The Long Way Home”. The opening chords of “Take The Long Way Home” create a portentous mood, like a heavy cloud, and then the purest, sweetest harmonica pierces them, like a shaft of bright sunlight, buoyed by joyful piano. It gives me chills. It’s perfect. The words to the song reflect that contrast too. It’s a feeling of disconnection I think we all experience — one part of your life can feel so good, so affirming, so uplifting, and then just like that, you run into someone who has a very different view. All of a sudden, their doubt exposes your own, and it all seems hollow. What’s the answer? Take the long way home. To me, it means finding a place in yourself, by yourself, where you know what’s true, how you can be satisfied. You’re not always there, but you point yourself in that direction. That’s how you get home.

“The Logical Song” talks about a different kind of disconnection. For me it evokes the last chapter of The House At Pooh Corner, which I’ve written about before. That transition point of leaving pure childhood behind, entering into a world that requires you to be “sensible, logical, responsible, practical,” has an unbelievably piercing poignancy to me. It is a deep, deep feeling, and I don’t think I can ever write about it again as well as I wrote about it in that blog entry, so I’m not going to try. All I can say is that Hodgson nails it, and I feel it every time, and it is the sweetest ache. That song is about as good as songs get. Watching Dante go off to school again this week, I feel it all over again. When we cry out at night, needing desperately to figure out who we are, songs like this let us know we’re not alone.


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1 Comment

  1. trrish

    Robby’s project is turning out to be fun for me, too. So fun to have you write about one of my favorite bands. Hodgson’s voice was like a beacon for me during my personal Great Depression of the late 70’s. I was walking down a hallway on the guys side of the dorm I lived in. I heard this incredible keyboard part coming out of someone’s room. I went in and asked “what the hell is this and how come I’ve never heard it?!?!” It was the song “School” on Supertramp’s 1974 album, Crime of the Century. It wasn’t long before I had taught myself that amazing keyboard solo (it came to me one night in a dream! Really.) They figured prominently in my development as a musician. I loved how much they valued keyboards.

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