The Fogelberg Files: Phoenix

By late 1979 and early ‘80, I was 14 and somewhat addicted to the sonic brew served by WIFI-92, a Top 40 radio station in Philadelphia, though I sometimes twisted the radio dial to the the mainstream rock found on 93.3 WMMR and 94.1 WYSP – and even all the way up to 102.1, WIOQ, which sported the softer sound crafted by singer-songwriters. As a result, I’m almost certain I heard “Longer,” the lead single from Dan Fogelberg’s Phoenix, in those months, as it was rising up the charts on its way to No. 2 on the pop charts. At minimum, given its format, WIFI-92 would have played it. But I have no memory of the breezy song prior to this past Monday, when I played Phoenix – Fogelberg’s sixth overall album – for the first time.

For those new to this series, I recommend you read the introduction – but, if you’d rather not, here’s a quick-hit overview: It’s a slalom through Fogelberg’s oeuvre by someone who missed most of his music back in the day. For those who’ve been hurtling alongside me since the get-go, you’ll know that I’ve been critical of some aspects of the preceding albums, especially the weak wordplay – but never, I hope, mean.

Anyway, upon its release in late November 1979, Phoenix – produced by Fogelberg with help from longtime pal Norbert Putnam and engineer Marty Lewis – received mediocre-to-solid reviews upon its release, with only a handful of critics agreeing with me that it’s not just his best album to date, but a thoroughly great album. (Yes, you read that right.) Part of that is due to the streamlining of his sound, with acoustic and electric guitars (all handled by Fogelberg) driving most songs. In a sense, it’s an extension of the sound sculpted by the Eagles in their pre-Hotel California, just sans the cynicism. As a result, the symphonic syrup that swamped his earlier albums is gone, with a judiciously used Prophet 5 synthesizer in its stead, and the harmonies that similarly drenched many choruses – and entire songs – have been reined in. As importantly, perhaps, is this: Grammatically suspect wordplay, which on past albums made me cringe, is absent. His lyrics flow the way lyrics should. 

The album opens with “Tullamore Dew,” a short instrumental that lays out the sonic themes of the album. It gives way to the title track, which flies high while chronicling a metaphoric rebirth: “Once I was a…once I was a man alone/Now I’ve found a heart to call my home/Like a phoenix I have risen from the flames…” It’s accented by glorious guitar work, I should mention. 

“Gypsy Wind” follows. It’s a nostalgic, mid-tempo tune similar to many Bob Seger songs, and includes hard-won wisdom within its Seger-esque lyrics: “Though our hearts may turn/It’s only when you listen that you learn.” “The Last to Know” continues the mid-tempo mood with a look at why the head and heart aren’t always in sync; it’s accented by a cool acoustic guitar solo that harkens back to “Tullamore Dew.”

“Face the Fire” is next. It’s a tremendous track accented by – did I say glorious guitar work already? Yeah. But it’s here, too, with Fogelberg’s electric odyssey underpinning the lyrics, which delve into the dangers of nuclear energy and the need to rely on solar power: “Face the fire/You can’t turn away/The risk grows greater with each passing day/The waiting’s over/The moment has come/To kill the fire and turn to the sun.” 

“Wishing on the Moon,” about the mistakes we repeat time and again, each time hoping for a different result, is next. It’s another track that, honestly, reminds me of Bob Seger; if it had been on Stranger in Town, the era’s nascent AOR stations would have played it to death. “Heart Hotels,” the album’s second single, lowers the tempo while, lyrically, Fogelberg uses a hotel as a metaphor for the heart; it’s accented by a cool sax solo by Tom Scott. “Longer” follows. In the Rolling Stone Record Guide, Stephen Holden labeled it a “shlock standard” and, I’d wager, it helped shaped the perception of Fogelberg as a “wimpy” singer-songwriter. Yet, to these 56-year-old ears, it’s a simple, heartfelt tune. (That said, I’m sure that if I heard it in ’79 or ’80, my 14-year-old self heard it as sentimental dribble.)

“Beggar’s Game” is a dramatic odyssey about finding love again: “She took my blindness and she led me through/As night retreated and the daylight grew/And with the first rays of the sun I knew/Love had another captive/Love had another fool.” It’s accented by an orchestra, which – unlike in the past – doesn’t overwhelm the song. It supports it. “Along the Road” closes the album in fine fashion, sharing some apt advice: “Along the road your steps may stumble/Your thoughts may start to stray/But through it all a heart held humble/Levels and lights your way.”

To sum up, Phoenix is an excellent outing – his best to date. I’d wager that if the same songs had appeared on, say, a Jackson Browne or Bob Seger album at the time, or the Eagles had released it, said album would have been heralded as a classic out of the gate and dominated mainstream rock stations. Instead, due to the perception of Fogelberg as a “sensitive singer-songwriter,” it was shunted off to the side by many (though certainly not all) critics and ignored by many deejays – though not the public. It peaked at No. 3 on the charts, went double platinum and spurred an upsurge of sales in his back catalog.

The track list:

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