The 1980s are often dismissed as a time of cheesy synths, sterile beats and production techniques that lacquered the soul out of pop and rock music, with a slew of the era’s new bands tending to get all of the blame. The truth, however, is that the era’s percolating pop and rock mostly imploded when long-established artists and acts tried to stay current by drenching their songs with delay, reverb and drum machines. Some, such as Don Henley, pulled it off. Most did not. Dan Fogelberg’s Exiles is a good example.
My initial impression after lowering the figurative stylus to the 1987 LP wasn’t that it’s therapy set to song, which—according to Fogelberg himself—it is. No, it was that I’d clicked play on some sort of weird, album-long mashup of Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” and Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” with a smidgen of Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart” mixed in.
Fogelberg’s 10th album is a song suite inspired by the dissolution of his first marriage. “It sure beat spending $75 an hour for a shrink,” he told Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press in July 1987. “People go to shrinks to verbalize their feelings. That’s what I do with songs.” He also said that, “[Divorce] dominates your day-to-day thinking; I couldn’t write about anything else. It was a lot to deal with.” He then explained, “It’s such a confusing time. This album was trying to deal with all the different sides of it, the different emotions you feel.”
The title track, which opens the set, casts both parties in the faltering marriage as exiles of a sort: “I don’t know where we went wrong/If I knew that I’d never had to write this song/But here we stand so far apart/Separate pieces of a broken heart.” “What You’re Doing” assigns the blame to her: “You tell your lies but I can see right through them/’Cause in your eyes I see another man.” “Lonely in Love,” the album’s second single, revisits the exile theme; it peaked at No. 2 on the adult contemporary charts. “Seeing You Again” finds the twosome reunited—and it feels so good, though just for a moment; then it hurts so bad. “She Don’t Look Back” casts his ex as leaving “a trail of broken hearts behind her.”
While the first five songs are full of vim and vitriol, “The Way It Must Be” steps back and admits a larger truth: He’s as much to blame as she: “Baby how could I have been so blind/To presuppose that your needs were just like mine/You’ve been a prisoner for a long, long time.” “Hearts in Decline,” which follows, again lessens the blame he initially cast her way: “There ain’t no easy answers, you know there’s only shades of gray.” An over-the-top cover of the plaintive “It Doesn’t Matter,” written by Stephen Stills and Chris Hillman for the classic Manassas album, continues in the same vein. “Our Last Farewell,” which was how the album originally ended, finds Fogelberg finally coming to terms with everything; his anger has given way to resignation: “I will always see you dancing through my dreams/And as hopeless as it seems, I will always love you “Beyond the Edge,” which was tacked on to a 2009 CD reissue, finds him awakening to new possibilities; it’s original home was a 1986 skiing documentary of the same name by Warren Miller, but it actually works well here. It’s a glimmer of hope, of new possibilities.
There are a few moments of grace throughout, primarily when he lets loose on guitar on “She Don’t Look Back,” which was the album’s first single; it hit No. 84 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 13 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, and “What You’re Doing,” which benefits from the Tower of Power horns and supporting vocals from the Waters.
But, by and large, the songs are hindered by both the ‘80s-flavored production and Fogelberg’s attempt to recast himself as a hardcore rocker. “I decided to take a little time and just say, I don’t want to be typecast as a singer-songwriter. I wanted to have fun with the music so that people won’t think I’m so serious about everything,” he explained to the Chicago Tribune’s Lynn Van Matre not long after the album’s June 1987 release. The result, however, is a disappointment on a par with Windows and Walls. It’s little more than a midlife crisis set to song. That it follows as sublime a work of art as High Country Snows makes it hurt all the more.
The track list: