BILLY SHERWOOD – Citizen: In The Next Life

Billy Sherwood’s 2015 album ‘Citizen’ looked at the world through the eyes of various historical characters, both real and fictional. He drafted in a few friends to make his vision a reality: Yes men Jon Davison and Geoff Downes lent their vocal and keyboard skills; other keyboards were added by sometime Yes members Rick Wakeman and Patrick Moraz, John Wesley, Steves Hackett and Morse each brought their distinctly different guitar chops to the recording sessions but, perhaps best of all, Colin Moulding (one time of XTC) came out of retirement for a guest vocal appearance. In many ways, ‘Citizen’ felt like an all star epic.

The concept’s second chapter ‘In The Next Life’ is scaled down by comparison since Sherwood wrote, sang and played everything by himself. It’s a one man voyage in pretty much every respect. When that works, it gives a nice self contained feel, but when it doesn’t, a few of the album’s songs feel a little flat.

The first few tracks don’t quite represent Billy Sherwood at his best. The multi-tracked, multi-layered approach without a real band feels a touch claustrophobic on the first three numbers, leading to material that sort of sounds demo oriented. Despite that, the opening number ‘The Partisan’ has a nice enough arrangement as it injects an unexpected funk oriented feel to its verses. That leads to something that seems closer to Steve Winwood and Dr. John in the late 80s than the usual World Trade sound of Sherwood’s best works. That funkier edge introduces a few nice organ flourishes and provides a great backdrop for a pleasant guitar solo. By the time a more typical World Trade sound takes over for the big hook, it’s obvious a reasonable idea is trying to escape. That said, there’s really no excuse for synthesized horn sections at any point after 1990, let alone in 2019. A little softer, ‘Sophia’ sounds like an old World Trade cast off and is nice enough without being earth-shattering. There’s a reasonable hook and some brilliant bass playing to be discovered, but that isn’t quite enough to make it the classic it could have been. The smooth music is enough to cast you back to any one of Sherwood’s 90s masterpieces from World Trade, The Key and beyond – as well as being a little remeniscent of bits from ‘Big Generator’ by Yes, albeit on a budget sound. Also, any familiarity with the past further highlights how Sherwood’s voice isn’t as good as it once was. Even with all the studio filtering in the universe, you can still hear the cracks and rougher edges coming through. The same goes for ‘Monet’ a shiny, tech-oriented ballad that places a soft vocal melody against acoustic guitars and a blanket of keys. Sherwood shows that he still has an easy knack with a ballad, but between an uneasily filtered vocal and the lack of real band, it really lacks so much of Sherwood’s earlier sparkle. Like the first two tracks, it’s all very much a case of being an okay listen, but seldom more.

From here, luckily, ‘Citizen: In The Next Life’ finds its feet for a while and for the next half dozen tracks Sherwood delivers songs that are stronger. Part of the improvement comes from being able to adjust your ears to the album’s less than broad sound, but there’s also an upturn in song writing quality. ‘Skywriter’ is a brilliant track where Billy’s bass work is pushed to the fore, which combined with a crisp, techy sound and more of a concession to an AOR influenced chorus has a little of everything you’d want from Sherwood at his best. The hooks are big and simple which contrasts nicely with a busier musical arrangement that takes in a little funk, a lot of pop and a few heavily filtered vocals that tip the hat to Yes material like ‘Leave It’. There’s also an understated keyboard solo that falls somewhere between things from Billy’s lavish past and something by Steve Winwood. Taking a sidestep into rockier territory, ‘We Shall Ride Again’ presents a disjointed riff where old fashioned organ busies itself between hard stabs of guitar during the verses, re-awakening memories of the best bits of the World Trade debut – already sounding better than anything on this album so far. Moving into the chorus, it gets even better as Billy’s bass rises to the fore, quickly showing why Chris Squire rated him so highly, while another simple hook contrasted by multi-layered voices brings everything closer to classic Sherwood. Taking time out for an instrumental break that teases with a strong prog rock backdrop and even a little jazz – a firm nod to Sherwood’s involvement with Yes at the time of recording – ‘Citizen: In The Next Life’ finally bares some serious teeth.

Via the soft and occasionally floaty intro, ‘Via Hawking’ soon settles on techy AOR sounds that could find allegiance with a number of Sherwood’s prior compositions. It isn’t as immediate as a couple of the album’s tracks, but between a few soaring guitars and a synthetic sounding chorus it sounds like the kind of thing destined to become a fan favourite in time. ‘By Design’, meanwhile, takes a journey further into AOR, only this time to be peppered with sitars and jazzy basslines. At the heart of it all comes Billy’s love of a pop hook and his old World Trade sound almost feels as if its jostling with ‘Heaven & Earth’ era Yes here, as well as bits and pieces from old Cannata LPs. In terms of semi-proggy adult pop it’s an album highlight, while the quirkier ‘Sailing The Seas’ teases with new wave quirks, a world of synths and polyrhythmic funk that brings it closer to the album opener than anything else in Sherwood’s vast catalogue. Musically, it all seems a little off centre, but between a strong narrative and a shiny chorus, it quickly finds its place as one of the album’s most interesting listens. Having covered a reasonable amount of ground with a pleasing array of pop-prog, ‘Mata Hari’ cements all of these skills in a sharp and complex tune that sounds even more like a throwback to Sherwood’s past. The AOR comes through most strongly, even sounding like a melody that started to take shape in 1989. After an unsure start, this track really hits home during a sharp guitar solo. For those who want the proggier end of things, there’s nothing for you here, but if you’d like to hear something that sounds like Asia crossed with World Trade and The Outfield teasing with a few very gentle eastern flourishes within the music, this’ll pass a really enjoyable four minutes. By the time the punchier finish introduces a second lead guitar break, it’s clear that for World Trade’s many fans, this’ll be a firm favourite due to its familiarity.

Prog epics have come in all shapes and sizes over the decades. Even just looking at Yes and their dense ‘Gates of Delirium’ and their beautiful ‘To Be Over’ you’d be hard pressed to find two such disparate pieces (and on the same album, too). From Big Big Train’s emotive ‘Victorian Brickwork’, to Tangerine Dream’s ‘Thru Metamorphic Rocks’ and Rush’s futuristic almost prog metal ‘Cygnus X-1’, the prog epic has allowed bands to let their minds and compositional skills run free. In the case of ‘Hold Quite’, Billy has – perhaps – let his mind run a little too free. Given space enough to paint with music, he could’ve done anything. Why a man with such melodic gifts has chosen to fill the better part of ten minutes (and almost a quarter of this album) with something that just has too many rambling new age ideas…just baffles. Yet, here it is, the final impression you’ll get from this long player is an overly long collection of vocal layers stretching across a couple of musical ideas that could have – and almost should have – been excised for use in better songs. For the first four minutes of this track, there are droning keys and plinky plunky acoustic guitars, neither of which come close to something Yes might create from such things. A vocal prattles on about “the global garden” as if Jon Anderson has come for a visit and his personal shaman has dropped something soothing in Billy’s cuppa. It’s only with the second part of the track things show any improvement and between a warm bass, some slightly jazzy drums and a misplaced 80s pop melody, it shows glimmers of something enjoyable despite dropping into a comfort zone of sounding like a World Trade leftover. Finally, things get all loose and disjointed again and Sherwood seems to think that repeating the phrase “holding still…holding quite” (that’s quite, as per the sleeve and not quiet, as expected) will be enough to see it through. It isn’t. It’s also mildly irritating, so it’s best at this point to cast your mind back to the middle of this album where everything seemed far more focused. An odd closing, certainly…and it’s certainly not for the best.

Previously, Billy has fit his work with Yes around his other various projects, but since stepping in for the much-loved (and missed) Chris Squire, Yes have taken priority…and with parts of this album, it sort of shows. It’s definitely one of those albums that can be a little disappointing, especially if approached with high expectations. When the material really works, though – as it does on ‘Skywriter’, ‘Sailing The Seas’ and ‘We Shall Ride Again’ – it brings long time fans songs in which they can really lose themselves. In fairness, while there’s probably only an EP’s worth of top-tier listening here, for lovers of World Trade and The Key, ‘Citizen: In The Next Life’ should still be worthy of a few spins.

July 2019