Bernie Leadon: Mirror
Genre: An unpretentious, guitar- and lyric-driven blend of country, folk and rock
Label: Emergent/Sony Red
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- As a founding member of The Eagles, Bernie Leadon helped bring the California country-rock movement into the ‘70s pop forefront. Though the first few Eagles albums captured a breezy, freewheeling quality, the group’s sound began to harden both musically and lyrically. He left the group after its fourth album, One Of These Nights, apparently content to leave life in the fast lane behind him. As a recording artist he hasn’t been heard from since 1977. Now, with nearly three decades’ worth of original material to choose from, the former Eagle has assembled an intriguing song cycle that peers into the oft-hidden recesses of what makes us tick, both individually and, by extension, as a society. The collection of songs deftly blurs the lines among autobiography, observation and storytelling, yet the disc’s philosophical jewels are doubtless the result of the singer’s own experiences and hard-won lessons. His first-ever solo effort, Mirror, is an organic, string-dominated record that sounds nothing like The Eagles yet possesses much of the purity and unselfconsciousness that marked that band’s early work. It’s an out-of-left-field surprise that doesn’t adhere to commercial standards and succeeds all the more for not doing so.
Leadon’s incisive, disarming lyrics avoid trumped-up drama despite his engagement with weighty subjects - the stuff of real life. Straightforwardly - and with considerable artfulness and insight - he identifies core truths about the human condition. When they’re not pretty, he lets the warts show. "Volcano" examines the time bomb of repressed anger and how it gets passed from generation to generation. "Vile And A Profane Man" deals with a similarly damaged character but one who is considerably more difficult to categorize. The track, reminiscent of the late Warren Zevon’s work, sketches a contradiction of a man who bluntly defends his unsavory ways with the most vulgar of language but pauses midway to taunt those he’s alienated, declaring almost comically that "my God’s bigger than your God." The unsettling song reminds us that, left unchecked, the basest instincts of fallen humanity lead to ugliness and hypocrisy.
While Leadon doesn’t shy away from thorny matters, he presents numerous songs that offer hope or humor to offset the album’s harsher realities. Sometimes he manages both in the same song. "Backup Plan," one of two tracks featuring guest vocalist Emmylou Harris, begins with a seemingly irresponsible floater whose lack of a pre-planned agenda becomes his strength by the song’s end. His study of infantile ego in the tenderly wrought psychology lesson "Center Of The Universe" shows that though we begin life absorbed with our own satisfaction, we can eventually grow attuned to others’ needs: "I’m not alone at the center of the universe/ I’m in a family, and we can’t all come first/ it took some time to learn to share/ so everybody gets what’s fair."
Materialism and personal ambition are explored in a variety of angles throughout the disc. The rousing rockabilly shuffle "Everybody Want" skewers a soap opera culture in which everybody wants something other than what they have, including their own personality traits. "Sears And Roebuck Catalog," with its provincial, 1900’s-style arrangement, is a subtly funny, Randy Newman-esque number pinpointing the origin of the western world’s mass merchandising, mail-order mentality: "they will bring it to your door, and they’ve got a guarantee/ if the first one’s broke, you get another one free - you’re buying quality." "What Do I Own" is a reverse spin on materialism in which Leadon concludes "it’s not the things I wear or drive (or) put on display that bring me real joy today/ it’s the little things without a price - sunset, sunrise…"
He asserts the preciousness of each new day in "Rich Life," featuring a toy piano interlude that speaks volumes about the value of simplicity. Revisiting the old "six months to live" question, Leadon suggests the reality of salvation when he asks, "what would you think if your life were transformed, and instead of the end, you had just been reborn?" The album’s spiritual messages are rarely explicit. In fact, until the album’s closing cut, the poignant, mournful "God Ain’t Done With Me Yet," the name of the Lord is used only in vain. While that would typically disqualify a CD from the Christian market, this is a notable exception. Its adult themes and language necessitate an "R" rating, but Mirror glimmers with so many treasures that the "R" could as easily stand for redemptive. Those who aren’t easily offended - and who are willing to apply Leadon’s insights to their own lives - might catch a glimpse of themselves in Mirror.
Steve Morley is a free-lance journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.