Welcome back to some more Albums of the ’80s. This week, Robert writes about an album which is an interesting choice – The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby And The Range. Bruce Hornsby is one of the few artists that I never warmed up to. His piano style is unique, so I always know it’s one of his songs as soon as I hear it. And I can never listen to the whole song. Let’s see if Robert can win me over. This is a great opportunity to read about Bruce Hornsby on this site, because I may not have written much about him myself. And if you’re like me, maybe you’ll change your mind about him. Or our dislike for Hornsby’s music will just have to be The Way It Is.
Take it away, Robert!
The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby And The Range
by Robert Mishou
This is an album that I have been in love with since I first heard the band in 1986 and I have wanted to review it for a while now. The talent that Bruce Hornsby and the Range brings to ‘80s music is astounding and I do not feel he is recognized nearly enough.
In November of 1986 I talked my parents into letting me go to a few concerts with my buddies. We saw a-ha in July on their Scoundrel Days tour and in November we had the great fortune of seeing Huey Lewis and the News on their Fore! Tour. Opening up for Huey Lewis was a band that had not hit Germany yet, but I did catch their first single, “The Way It Is” on the American radio station a few days before the concert. This band, Bruce Hornsby and the Range, was a true unknown for me and I was far from excited to see them, but I was extremely excited to see Huey Lewis and the News because I owned all of their albums and loved their music. I thought I was going to just have to endure the lackluster ‘opening band’. I have never been so wrong in my music fan life! Yes, Huey Lewis and the News was fantastic, but this unknown opening band absolutely blew me away.
At the time I had no idea that Bruce Hornsby was the former keyboardist for Sheena Easton. I definitely had no idea he was such an excellent songwriter and a peerless pop pianist. I only recognized one song (just a little) and typically this would disappoint me at a live show, but not this time. I loved every song the band played (which was most of that first album) and was completely enraptured with all of the musicianship. I did my best to remember the chorus to every song so I could by the band’s music the next day. Fortunately, I found all of the songs they played that night on one album, their debut disc, The Way It Is. For the next few days I will take a look at all ten songs.
The album itself has reached multi platinum status and, in 1986, #3 on the album charts. Huey Lewis makes an appearance on the album as a harmonica player on track #2 and as a backing vocalist on track #6; he also produced tracks #4 and #8. I suppose it makes sense that Bruce Hornsby and the Range opened up for Lewis on that tour. Bruce Hornsby and the Range ended that year with three AT 40 singles and a Grammy for Best New Artist. Quite a debut!
If you are not too familiar with this album, I am convinced that these next two days will cause you to go back and give a better listen to this band.
On the Western Skyline
I have always really enjoyed good songwriting. In my early years of music listening, that usually meant the sound of the song. As I aged a bit, I placed more of a judging emphasis on the lyrical content, so Sting and Bruce Hornsby became two of my favorite songwriters. This initial track on The Way It Is the first example of the type of high quality songs that Hornsby composed. He sets this song in a prototypical rural setting – which is commonplace for many of his songs. He paints an idyllic picture of small town America, turns out the people there are concerned about the same things as those in big cities – that makes this a universal theme. The setting is clear:
About this time of evening, out by the bay
They turn the road lights on the bridge
A diesel rolls in silhouette, eastbound
Lovers glad the sun has set
The rooftops sag on second street
Bachelor’s quarters, too much fun
Not fun enough
The kite’s still hanging on the wire
Waiting on the wind
Too many dreams and not enough hope
Now that the setting is clear, the meaning of the song surfaces. The speaker wants to be in love, but he has not found the right woman yet. He is hopeful, “I know she’s out there somewhere / On the Western skyline.” Hornsby continues to make observations about the town and there is even some hopeful anticipation because there is a spot where the women wait and wait for the sailors – but it is not to be because, “He’s got the admiral’s daughter in the back / Trying to cross her battle line/ I’m staring into the twilight / Wishing I could be with her tonight.” This song does an excellent job in setting up the tone of the remainder of the album.
Every Little Kiss (#14)
This is the second song that harkens back to Hornsby’s home of Virginia. Each of these first two tracks are set on a bay near some large body of water. And like “On the Western Skyline”, this song has a common, universal theme: missing someone you are in love with. In this song the speaker is working hard and trying to make a living. Unfortunately the woman he is in love with is “a thousand miles away” and he desperately missed her. The thought of her is one of the few things that motivates him to keep going. They are apart for financial reasons as he is being forced to work at a job far away from her most likely because it pays well. The speaker reveals this as he laments, “What I wouldn’t give for only one night / A little relief in sight / Or someday when times weren’t so tight.” The chorus echoes his desperation to be with her:
When the day goes down on the watertown
When the night sinks low all around
That’s when I need you now
Your what I miss
Every little kiss
“Every Little Kiss” is also the first song on the album that highlights Hornsby’s piano skills. His piano introduces the song and establishes the theme for the rest of the song. The piano is not as memorable as it will be in later songs, but it’s strong presence it felt as it weaves it’s way into the rest of the band’s playing with impressive results. This song features distinct drumming by John Molo and a rarish guitar solo by David Mansfield.
Mandolin Rain (#4)
With this third track the listener is now accustomed to and expecting Hornsby’s strong piano – and this song does not disappoint. It has not reached the memorable level that it will later, but it is dang good. At the concert in 1986, the band did not open with this song, it came three or four songs into the set, but this is the one that caught me and was my initial realization that this was a band that I would like for a long time. The lyrics here touch on yet another universal: regret. The speaker in this song was once in love and had a woman that was very special. Now, present tense, she is gone and there are certain things that remind him of her. The final verse says:
The boats steaming in
I watch the side wheel spin
And I think of her when I hear that whistle blow
I can’t change my mind
I knew all the time that she’d go
But that’s a choice I made long ago
We all have regrets – impossible not to – and this song captures the heart wrenching feelings that often accompany this awful feeling. Hornsby is not trying to fool us with a surprise ending; we know how the relationships ends in the first verse:
The song came and went
Like the time that we spent
Hiding out from the rain under the carnival tent
I laughed and she smiled
It would last for a while
You don’t know what you got til you lose it all again
I want to not like the cliche her, but I can’t help it, this song touches me. I love the imagery used in the chorus, the “mandolin rain” and the “banjo wind” – solid writing. I feel very fortunate to not have a relatable regret, but this song has always served as a type of cautionary tale for me – be careful of the decisions you make and try not to set up a life of regretful memories.
The Long Race
The piano takes a back seat in this song; the music here is just and expert blending of bass, drums, keyboard, and guitar. This becomes a somewhat inspirational song extolling the value of never giving up. The speaker is working hard and determined to make the life that he wants for himself and the woman he loves. This determination becomes very clear with, “All of these years I’ve been waiting for you / Through the high tides and the low tides too / If I stop now, how could I ever be with you?” This optimistic attitude will lead him to his ideal situation. He knows it will not be easy, but it will be worth it:
It’s a long, long race
If I try I will surely finish
It’s a long long race
If I try I will surely win it
It is nice to occasionally have a strong, positive attitude in a rock song.
We will flip this album over to Side B on Wednesday.