The Fogelberg Files: The Innocent Age

So, at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, algorithm-driven modern life makes me miss the witchy enchantments of long ago, when a song fragment on the radio left you mesmerized, the twist of the TV knob flipped you into the unknown and the turn of a newspaper page unveiled a slew of stories and ads that had no relation to what you’d just read (unless the story was continued from the front page, of course). That’s all to say, these days, we’re routinely greeted with “recommendations” tied to what we’ve recently listened to, watched or read. It’s the stuff that boredom is made of. If I went by my “recommended” list within Apple Music, for instance, I wouldn’t have re-discovered Dan Fogelberg’s The Innocent Age.

I mentioned in the introduction to this occasional series that I first bought the double-LP set on a whim at age 16 in 1981 and that, soon thereafter, left it to gather dust in my collection, never to be played again. (In fact, I eventually traded it in at a used record store.) That fall, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I was more about perky pop and mainstream rock than thoughtful treatises on growing up, old and (hopefully) wiser. Flash forward to last August, however, when I heard aspects of its wistful wonder in an album by another Illinois emigre, Zach Phillips. I pulled up The Innocent Age and clicked play – and then clicked play again.

As I sometimes say, “Wow. Just wow.”

Now, making music isn’t akin to making a model airplane; there’s more to it than inserting the right pieces into the correct slots, slathering on glue and letting it dry. Likewise, experiencing music is about more than just strapping on the headphones or cranking up the stereo. It’s an idiosyncratic exercise that’s as much about the listener’s headspace as it is the artist, album or song; there’s no right or wrong, per se, just likes and dislikes, with much – if not all – of those situational. (That’s not to say some artists aren’t ready for primetime or that others aren’t the audio equivalent of a soft drink – i.e., pure product. But that’s a post for another day.) 

Which is my long-winded way of saying: To these 56-year-old ears, The Innocent Age is a brilliant song cycle accented by note-perfect production. It opens with the strum of an acoustic guitar on “Nexus” that absolutely shimmers before the song proper skips into a fast gait with poetic lyrics that flow with nary an awkward phrase: “Across the vein of night there cuts a path of searing light/Burning like a beacon on the edges of our sight/At the point of total darkness and the lights divine divide/A soul can let its shadow stretch and land on either side….” Joni Mitchell contributes backing vocals.

“The Innocent Age,” which is dedicated to Buffalo Springfield and features the Springfield’s Richie Furay on harmonies, continues the vibe. “Storybook endings never appear/They’re just someone’s way of leading us here/Waiting for wisdom to open the cage/We forged in the fires of the innocent age…” And therein, in just two songs, he lays down the overarching theme that drives the album through its 80 minutes. It’s a meditation not just on “the passage from the cradle to the grave,” as he sings during “In the Passage,” but about the questions and wisdom one gleans during the journey – sometimes it seems the more we know, the less we know. Or, as he puts it in “Lost in the Sun”: “Every night I ask myself that same old question why/And every day the answer seems more distant/I always knew the final truths lay just beneath the lies/But I never thought they’d be this hard to find…”

The music itself, although recorded in part in Colorado, is very much in keeping with the SoCal sound sculpted by the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and others, including himself, during the mid- and late 1970s. There’s more than just lacquering the same production gloss atop the songs, however. A few tunes echo others. The piano intro of “Run for the Roses,” for instance, borrows its feel from “Desperado,” while the loping intro to “Empty Cages” does the same with “You Make Loving Fun.” (That’s not a negative, I should add, as many songs by many acts echo those by others – such things are what makes the musical world go ‘round, really.)

The idea for the album, from what I’ve gathered, had been circulating and percolating in Fogelberg’s mind for some time. In a June 17th, 1978, interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, for instance, he talked about it in general terms with reporter George Gladney. “I know what the album is going to feel like. It will be a theme album and it will be very uncommercial. I flash on it from time to time.”

He was wrong about the uncommercial aspect, it should be noted. The album did very well, peaking at No. 6 on the charts and moving enough units to go double platinum. Also, three of its songs made Billboard’s Top 10 pop chart: “Same Old Lang Syne,” which was released the previous November, reached No. 9; it tells the story of running into an old girlfriend on Christmas Eve. “Hard to Say,” about matters of the heart, hit No. 7; and his tribute to his dad, “Leader of the Band,” landed at No. 9.

The Innocent Age wasn’t universally acclaimed at the time of its release, however. Marshall Fine of the Gannett News Service described it “flatter than old beer” and “the kind of album that would appeal to Kahlil Gibran fans with pretensions to Colorado mellow,” while Rick Shefchik of Knight-Ridder Newspapers called the lyrics “every bit as mundane as those by Styx, Rush and Journey, although I’d be much more likely to play this album, if only for background music.” John Smyntek of the Detroit Free Press, on the other hand, dubbed it a “masterwork by a fine artist” that contained “gem after gem after gem.” The Bangor Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer and Spokane Chronicle were likewise enthusiastic.

Of course, different sets of ears discern different things and, as I intimated above, much of one’s reaction to a piece of music reflects the listener as much as, if not more than, the music itself. At 16, for example, I wasn’t ready for a contemplative treatise such as this – maybe in a Bob Seger or Jackson Browne song, but not over 17 tracks and four LP sides. Forty years on and I now hear many things beneath the production sheen, all of them good. How anyone could dismiss the beautiful duet with Emmylou Harris, “Only the Heart May Know,” is beyond me.

Joni Mitchell, Richie Furay and Emmylou Harris aren’t the only “name” guests, either. Michael Brecker contributes soprano sax, while Mike Brewer, Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Chris Hillman provide backing vocals, and the UCLA Choir performs on the closing “Ghosts.” The studio players are the general crew who backed Fogelberg on his previous few albums – you can see who plays on what here (and also, if you want, peruse the lyrics).

Anyway, as I’ve navigated album-by-album through Fogelberg’s discography, I’m impressed by how – with the exception of Captured Angel – each album was better than the last. The Innocent Age continues that trend. It is a masterful treatise on life and living, of looking back and looking ahead. If your memories of it are faint or non-existent, if you remember the songs primarily as adult-contemporary fodder, give it another go. It’s not just a great album, it’s an essential listen – so says I, curmudgeon in the making, at any rate.

Past, present & future entries in the series…

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