JON ANDERSON – Animation

After leaving Yes in 1979 following the tour for their ‘Tormato’ album, Jon Anderson barely rested. Between 1980 and 1982, he split most of his creative time between his own solo projects and collaborations with Greek keyboard virtuoso Vangelis, which brought the vocalist some UK chart success with the commercial new age/synth pop singles ‘I Hear You Now’ and the much-loved ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’. By the summer of 1981 and with the second Jon & Vangelis album ‘The Friends of Mt. Cairo’ having barely hit record shop shelves, Anderson was back in the studio working on the material that was soon to become his third LP ‘Animation’.

Upon release in June 1982, ‘Animation’ was a cult hit among fans, but not especially a commercial success. It marked the first time since the 1960s that Anderson failed to break the top 40 of the UK albums chart, and yielded no hit singles – which might seem weird considering his recent success with Vangelis – but, in all fairness, ‘Animation’ is a really complex animal. On the surface, it’s shiny pop oriented sound and extensive use of the technologies of the era make it appear as if it should’ve been much better received, but closer inspection reveals a sometimes challenging album that often delights in being busy, sometimes for the sake of it, and very occasionally at the expense of obvious hooks. However, it’s one of those albums which, with enough time invested, will eventually present a lot of brilliant material. Some of it is about as singalong as the more excessive bits of ‘Topographic Oceans’, but as is often the case with solo Jon, there’s far more at stake cheeky pop tune.

When this marriage of synth pop goodies and weird art rock works, it results in some very interesting songs. Not that that would count for anything if you’d happened to hear ‘Surrender’, the album’s lead single, first. ‘Surrender’ is the very worst kind of reggae tinged 80s pop – beating even the calypso junk of Robert Palmer’s ‘Change His Ways’ later in the decade for pure cheese factor. Anderson wails about sunny days and world peace over a light arrangement where John Giblin’s fretless bass is offset by noises and keys that parp incessantly in lieu of the necessary horn section. Throughout this pop catastrophe, Jon sounds really over-enthused, and although the sentiment is admirable enough, and he sounds utterly committed to his claim that we should “explode the weapons above the Earth”, the sheer levels of purest fromage make it hard to take seriously. Still, much like the earlier love it/hate it ‘Don’t Kill The Whale’, you know Anderson is more than happy in his little bubble. He doesn’t care if you like this or not.

Luckily, the rest of the album offers material that’s very strong. It’s not always immediate, but it’s often supremely confident and very quirky. It is a record that is unafraid to marry a prog musician’s sense of boundless adventure to a very contemporary sound, at least for the time of recording. This comes across brilliantly during ‘Olympia’, which features an introductory riff and groove that wouldn’t necessary feel out of place on a Bryan Ferry album from the period with its punchy rhythm, synthy sounding guitar work and aggressive keys taking the weight. Jon quickly injects his own personality on the pop-rock sound of course, when he uses his high tenor to deliver several wordy passages over the soaring guitars and stabbing keys. If the voice isn’t enough to draw you in almost immediately, a slower middle eight comes closer to ‘Tormato’ era Yes by displaying a lilting melody and vaguely new age charms, but as quickly as it’s here, it’s gone and the subsequent instrumental break reverts to something far busier. As before, though, Anderson’s assembled band are especially on point, and the way the loud fretless bass punches through the wall of sound captures a very 80s mood. A few plays helps the arrangement’s busier elements make more sense and, eventually, ‘Olympia’ sounds like an AOR classic, tempered by a few quirks that surely influenced the young Billy Sherwood.

The album’s other single, ‘All In A Matter of Time’, is another genuine highlight. Although the beards who think anything less than Yes’ ‘Close To The Edge’ is lightweight pop might not consider it so, there’s a great deal about this song and its arrangement that’s pure Anderson. The lilting melody is perfect for his vocal which brims with life as Jon wrings the main hook for everything it’s worth and, better still, the musical backdrop blends pop, AOR and prog in a way that ‘Tormato’ occasionally hinted. There’s a keyboard solo that’s a dead ringer for one of Wakeman’s earlier efforts, and it wouldn’t take a great leap of the imagination to hear Steve Howe applying a more complex layer to the bursts of lead guitar, which goes a long way to affording this number its classic sound. More than that, though, it sounds like the natural successor to the more accessible moments of Jon’s 1980 solo release ‘Song of Seven’, creating a pop-prog hybrid that would be the perfect entry point for a first time listener.

If there had been any doubt after hearing those songs that Anderson had fully embraced the sounds of the new decade, ‘Unlearning (The Dividing Line)’ almost casts him as a proto Howard Jones. The basic musical structure blends light prog with a hefty dose of synth-pop, where heavy chords mesh with a bendy bass, but – once again – there’s no mistaking Anderson being in the driving seat once the chorus rolls around. More of a refrain than a definite hook, this fully exploits Anderson’s predilection for wedging too many syllables into small spaces as his high tenor truly battles its way to victory through a barrage of clanking sounds. A few plays suggests this is undeniably great, and its good to hear Jon embracing new technology and new challenges with both hands, but there’ll always be curiosity as to how this would have sounded with more of a Yes-like set up. Going even further into the technology of the age, ‘Pressure Point’ presents fractured beats against synth bursts, voices put through vocoders and a weird Art of Noise vibe throughout. The hi-tech clankiness is juxtaposed by Jon himself, who carries a complex melody once more, soaring like the eternal choirboy while his hired band weave their complex work. If the techy approach seems odd from the outset, then a weird jazz interlude sounding like early 80s Weather Report and a further shift something that might pass for Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rock It’ era tech-funk unveils even more of ‘Animation’s constant desire for breaking new ground. It won’t be for everyone, but listeners who “get it” will certainly consider it a more than interesting diversion. ‘Much Better Reason’, meanwhile, stokes up the fretless basses against a bright electric piano sound, creating something hugely 80s, while a busy, afrobeat tinged rhythm offsets the pop. Even when faced with something as jagged, Anderson approaches his vocal melodies with ease, dropping something that sounds like a late 70s Yes melody into this new world. Part pop and part funk, although it sometimes feels like a David Byrne experiment, by the time Jon reaches an interlude where multi-layered voices call out an almost calypso-tinged mantra it all feels surprisingly natural.

There are also times, of course, where ‘Animation’ finds Anderson occupying a really obvious comfort zone and in full flight. The Tony Visconti produced ‘All God’s Children’ taps firmly into Anderson’s spiritual side, often suggesting his place in the world is but a small one – and that has nothing to do with his diminutive stature. Musically, the drum machines and mechanics are still out in force, but Visconti’s production on the track has a greater warmth and depth compared to Neil Kernon’s work on the rest of the LP. This number centres around the vocal that runs throughout, and between a choir of Jons and a chorus hook that takes on a blend of light gospel and something that sounds like a distant cousin to a UK Eurovision entry from 1986, it’s all pretty huge sounding. It’s unlikely to ever become your favourite solo Anderson tune, but it’s fair to suggest it’s a pleasant enough distraction. In terms of “classic Anderson”, the brief ‘Boundaries’ stands head and shoulders above the rest of the material. Dispensing with the technical aspects and heavy keyboard use and instead opting for something more pastoral, it’s exactly the kind of thing most people would expect to find on a Jon Anderson record, solo or otherwise. With a perfect blend of high tenor voice, folk derived 12 string guitar, occasional penny whistle and gentle folk pop melody, it sounds very much like something Jon would’ve been working on prior to his split with Yes. It’s almost as if he’s pulled it from the past to give it a new home – and indeed, this song such archetypal Anderson that it would be resurrected in different forms fifteen years later: firstly on Jon’s own album ‘The Promise Ring’ (retitled ‘O’er’) and on the much maligned Yes LP ‘Open Your Eyes’ where it became widely known as ‘Somehow, Someday’. Regardless of how many different arrangements the song eventually gained, this is the original and definitive, and if you’re a fan of Jon’s more reflective side, there’s so much to love within these three minutes even if he isn’t attempting to push any of those titular boundaries.

On top of all of that (mostly) good stuff, there’s the title track itself. Its near ten minute sprawl suggests a proggy heart due to its length, and indeed, it proves to be the album’s most complex piece. Bringing together waltzing time signatures that sound like an old Gordon Giltrap theme, broken bursts of keyboard effects that sound like an overhang from work with Vangelis and various synthesized neo-classical and new age passages, there’s something of a restless mood within the performance. However, its almost episodic and kitchen sink nature more than allows Anderson the scope to indulge every musical fantasy. After a few minutes of lurching around, a solid rock-pop groove that throws Jon into a world that sounds like a marriage between the early 80s Supertramp and a post-Hackett Genesis, by which time it’s already in danger of being too busy, but it would take a hard heart to suggest it was anything other than interesting. For the older Yes fan, the real reward comes at around the seven minute mark when a sparse piano teases with neo-classical and new age musical motifs, while Jon’s multi-tracked voice battles with itself before finally descending to a closing silence. It should be a mess, but like the similar flights of fancy that filled 1976’s ‘Olias of Sunhillow’, it all seems to work despite itself. If you’ve somehow been put off of seeking out a copy of ‘Animation’ due to a dodgy first single and for fear that the rest would be too commercial, this track will more than set you straight.

Despite something of a stylistic shift and its embracing of an 80s sound, this album has remained a favourite among the more hardcore Anderson fan-base over the years, but in retrospect, it’s something of an overlooked record in terms of its place in the world at large. Not so much in that it spent a long time in an out of print limbo – those fans have clung onto their original vinyl LPs and sung the album’s praises forever – but rathermore, due to the events that immediately followed its release. How could it ever compete, in a historical sense, with Jon rejoining Yes, recording one of their best selling albums – the classic ‘90125’ – and (briefly) becoming MTV stars? The world at large forgetting about ‘Animation’ is such a travesty; although it is sometimes very mechanical sounding, it’s actually a great and very inventive record that somehow retains the kind of heart you’d expect from Anderson’s best work despite the cluttered and busy arrangements. It is the kind of album that not only needs re-evaluating, but one that’s also deserving of a far wider audience. It might not even be too much of a stretch to call it one of the decade’s lost classics.

Read a review of Jon Anderson’s ‘Song of Seven’ here.

April 2021