The Fogelberg Files: Windows and Walls

A major disappointment—that, in a nutshell, summarizes Dan Fogelberg’s eighth outing, Windows and Walls. Released on January 30th, 1984, it finds him recycling old themes and appropriating others, though generally not doing either all that well. It’s almost as if, following the artistic success of The Innocent Age, he chose to wallow in artistic blandness rather than challenge himself again. He’s going through the motions, to a large extent, perhaps due to the sense that his kind of music was falling out of favor. After all, with rare exception, the folk-flavored singer-songwriters of yore were seen as bores by the nascent MTV generation.

Unlike many of my peers, I wasn’t a Johnny One Note – I liked a lot of different sounds that year, as my many posts about the early and mid-’80s show. I liked a lot of albums and artists, old and new, in rock, pop, country and soul. But if Windows and Walls was the first Fogelberg album I purchased instead of The Innocent Age, I doubt I’d be writing this series. To compare it to a Paul Simon album, it’s his Hearts and Bones, but lacks anything as memorable as “The Late Great Johnny Ace.”

In any event, the album opens with its first single (and Fogelberg’s last Top 40 hit), “The Language of Love,” which is as cynical a translation of le langage de l’amour as I’ve heard. It basically posits that people never say what they mean when they’re in relationships: “She says no when she means yes/And what she wants you know that I can’t guess/When we want more you know we ask for less/Such is the language of love.” About the only reason why it’s a noteworthy track: He gave into the demands of the MTV age and made a music video…though I doubt MTV played it.

The second track, the title tune, strives for poignancy while painting the portrait of a lonely widow, but the result is bland caricature. “The Loving Cup,” which follows, heaves bitterness and cynicism while delving into the quest for love and companionship: “Everyone searching for somebody/Someone to kiss and tell/More often than not our heavens turn into hell.”

The centerpiece of the eight-song suite, which ends Side 1, is “Tucson, Arizona (Gazette).” It’s a loping story song about a murder-suicide that’s indebted in large part to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and any number of true-crime tomes. It’s meant to be a grand statement about nature, nurture and tough breaks, I think, but instead comes across as a meandering ode about a bleak subject.

Side 2 starts off with “Let It Go,” another bitter song that, to my ears, sounds like a castoff from the Eagles’ The Long Run album. That castoff vibe continues with “Sweet Magnolia and the Traveling Salesman,” another story-song about longing and regret. “Believe in Me,” which follows, finds him trying to win over a woman who doubts him: “If I could only do one thing/Then I would try to write and sing a song/That ends your questioning and makes you believe in me.” It’s the one song on the album that sounds heartfelt, which probably explains why it topped the Adult Contemporary charts.

“Gone Too Far,” the album closer, finds him musing about overpopulation and ecological concerns overtop another Eagles-like, electric backdrop. It’s meant to be a grand statement, no doubt, but is little more than a decent end to a thoroughly disappointing album, one that his dwindling fanbase likely embraced but others looked upon with askance.

If released just a few years earlier, my hunch is Windows and Walls would have sold based on Fogelberg’s name alone. Instead, it barely eked into the Top 20. I’m sure it didn’t help that the critical reception was about what you’d think: A handful of scribes showered it with praise, some faint, but the bulk skewered it. Mark Marymont of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, for instance, called it “a collection of wimpy ballads and tame rockers” and said that it’s “shot through with simplistic rhymes that would embarrass Rod McKuen.” Sam Williams of the Fresno Bee, meanwhile, called it “low-key—nice to listen to while eating dinner” and labeled the story-songs “unmotivated and flat.” And where I, above, noted an Eagles influence, he hears Neil Young and Crosby, Stills & Nash. 

To my ears, Fogelberg’s earliest albums suffered from subpar lyrics and overt influences, but—with the exception of Captured Angel—each was better than the one before. Phoenix and The Innocent Age, on the other hand, were excellent through and through. So I take no joy in saying that this outing is just plain mediocre. In some respects, both lyrically and production-wise, it’s better than his first three albums, but the difference is this: He was in the process of becoming, back then. By 1984, he had no excuse.

It may well be that his heart wasn’t in it, that he was already looking ahead to his next album, the bluegrass-flavored High Country Snows, while recording this one. That spring, after all, he told the Rockline radio show that, “I used to play bluegrass when I lived in Nashville, and I love that form of music. I finally got to the point where I had enough tunes of that type sitting around and nowhere else to put ‘em on my more conventional albums. So I decided I’d just put all these together and go down and have some fun and put just a super band of bluegrass musicians together.”

The track list: 

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