The Fogelberg Files: River of Souls

On October 23, 1993, a Saturday, Dan Fogelberg headlined the Valley Forge Music Fair in Devon, Pa., with a second show scheduled for Sunday. Diane and I weren’t at either. Instead, on Saturday, we headed to Second Street in Philly’s Old City neighborhood, where we enjoyed a good meal at Serrano’s restaurant and then walked up a steep flight of steps to the Tin Angel, our favorite music club at the time, to see Austin singer-songwriters David Halley, Jo Carol Pierce, Michael Fracasso and Jimmy LaFave share the stage. On Sunday, we likely stuck closer to home, maybe hitting a CD- or bookstore—or both—plus the supermarket to pick up food for the week. My favorite albums that year included Maria McKee’s You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, Van Morrison’s Too Long in Exile, and Neil Young’s Unplugged, with memorable concerts including—among many others—the aforementioned Maria McKee and 10,000 Maniacs. I was 28.

I start there to remind readers of this occasional series that, as I explained in my long-ago introduction, this slalom through Fogelberg’s discography is via skis that belong to a longtime music fan who never got into his songs beyond those found on High Country Snows, which I loved from the get-go. I didn’t dislike him or disparage his art, in other words, just didn’t pay it much mind.

Back on point: the 42-year-old Fogelberg was touring in support of his recent River of Souls album, which was released on September 28. Though it barely cracked the charts, topping out at No. 164, he still filled the concert halls he played—an odd fate suffered by many veteran artists due to the niche-driven world of radio, which saw their new releases ignored by radio programmers despite their old music being celebrated. As Fogelberg joked with the Chicago Tribune’s Patrick Kampert, “There was a time when I could belch and they’d play it.” He expanded upon that thought with the Kansas City Star’s A. Scharhorst: “We certainly don’t have the access to the masses that we had, say, 10 years ago.” But he also recognized that he was blessed to have the fans he did: “I’m grateful that I still have a pretty loyal audience out there that buys my records and comes to the shows, but that’s something I’ve built up over 22 years.”

River of Souls, his first studio set since 1990’s The Wild Place, expands upon the sonic palette he’d employed up until this point in time. Although long labeled a so-called “sensitive singer-songwriter,” his previous albums showed him to be much more than that. He routinely blended acoustic folk with electric rock, light jazz and even classical elements, plus enjoyed forays into bluegrass and country. This time out, world music infuses the songs, from calypso to Irish flourishes to African beats to even a little flamenco.

If you listened to “Magic Every Moment,” which is the leadoff track to the 10-song set, you should (hopefully) recognize two things. The first: the lyrics, once deciphered, are an exquisite observation worthy of Yeats: “There’s so much we take for granted—there’s so much we never say/We get caught up in the motion of just a living day to day/We are fettered to the future, we are prisoners of the past/And we never seem to notice ’til our lives have finally/Slipped right through our grasp.” The second: It’s busy. Extraordinarily busy. There’s nary a space between notes, with seemingly more instruments jammed into the song’s four minutes and change than many artists employ over the course of an album.

“All There Is,” the second song, works better. Dedicated to Donald Trump long before that tinpot despot’s entrance into politics, he calls out the “hole in the heart of the American dream.” Likewise, the seafaring “The Minstrel” works well, too. “Faces of America,” meanwhile, trods the streets of America’s cities to share the plights of the homeless. Fogelberg explained to Kampert his shift from soul-baring songs to political concerns: “I can’t separate who I am personally and professionally. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I was dealing with relationships. I got married and divorced, and I wrote about that. As you get older, you quit looking at yourself so much. It’s not something you conjure up—you write what you write, whether it’s romantic situations or something else.”

The gospel-flavored “Holy Road” recounts a dream that found Fogelberg face-to-face with God: “And then I told Him/‘Well, You made the sun and You made the sky/The things that crawl and the things that fly/And then You made the human race’/And He said, ‘Well, everybody makes mistakes.’” Kinda funny. To my ears, a la “Magic Every Moment,” it’s a little too busy for its own good, however, with a choir and horns overwhelming the proceedings. The same observation works for “Serengiti Moon,” which leans on African rhythms and beats. “Higher Ground,” which surveys the state of America, has the feel of a Stevie Winwood tune circa Arc of a Diver. The minimalistic approach benefits the message.

“A Love Like This” is a welcome return to the love-themed songs of his bygone years, with a smart guitar solo accenting the proceedings. As elsewhere on the album, his voice sounds a tad weathered; whether from aging or vocal issues, it’s hard to say. The title track incorporates a calypso touch while exploring what follows this thing called life; it’s a nice story-song, but not one that bears out repeated plays. The closing number, “A Voice for Peace,” is a slab of ‘60s idealism set loose in a decade that, in many ways, saw said idealism beaten down by cynicism. 

All in all, River of Souls is neither a good nor bad album. As Chuck Campbell of the Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail observed in his review, the inclusion of world music elements is somewhat stirring, just “[n]ot stirring enough to make this a good album, but at least stirring enough so that it’s not lousy.” The songs themselves are solid, with some of the strongest lyrics of Fogelberg’s career, but too often they’re lost beneath the production. Songs, just as people, need to breathe. If I’d bought it in 1993, odds are I’d have played it once and then left it to gather dust in our CD racks.

The track list:

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