Sunday, May 26, 2013

Track of the Week: Buffalo Springfield, "Mr. Soul"

Buffalo Springfield is perhaps rock's first ex post facto supergroup.  Stephen Stills went on to join Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Richie Furay partnered with Jim Messina in Poco before Messina teamed up with Kenny Loggins, and Neil Young went on to be, well, Neil Young.  They only put out two studio albums in their together, and neither achieved classic status.  They are usually thought of today, if at all,  as the genesis point for Young and Stills, not one of the most interesting American bands of their day, which they were.

When asked to name a Buffalo Springfield song, most folks who could come up with one would say "For What It's Worth."  This eerie tune has come to represent something of the essence of the tumultuousness of the late 1960s, and I've heard it used in countless films and sampled by Public Enemy.  As great as that song is, I think Buffalo Springfield reached their apex with "Mr. Soul."

It is founded on a clever bit of thievery, as its driving riff bears more than a passing resemblance to the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."  Here the riff does not sound audacious or rebellious, but anxious and neurotic, like Neil Young's voice.  The lyrics are typical for Young: concrete enough to relate to, but vague enough to make the listener fill in the blanks.  There seems to be a questioning of the effect that rock stardom is having on him, as Young discusses getting a letter from an upset fan who says "you're strange, but don't change."  While he's "raised" by her words, he caustically notes "any girl in the world could easily have known me better."  In the third verse he sings "In a while will the smile on my face turn to plaster?  Stick around while the clown who is sick does the trick of disaster," and it sounds absolutely sinister.  He sounds like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown; there's little doubt that the sick clown is him.

The best part of the song happens to be the interplay between Young and Stills' guitars, which thrillingly duel with each other on the break with feedback-laden, high-pitched sounds that personify the mental anguish of the lyrics.  It's enough to make you almost wish that Buffalo Springfield had stayed together, and Young and Stills had developed their musical relationship, rather than growing to dislike each other.  Of course, they both went on to bigger and better things, but this one song shows the potential of What Could Have Been.

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