If there’s anything Yes‘ latest disasterpiece Heaven and Earth has taught me, it’s that I will always prefer a solid pop album over a dogshit prog one. Writing a set of catchy, concise and effective tunes is potentially just as much a challenge as penning a grandiose epic; it just requires a separate set of skills. Yes had long-since established themselves as masters of the latter, and the decade prior to the release of 90125 was filled with lasting testaments to their skill as a band. With that inspiration having shown its end with the patchy Tormato and largely outsourcedDrama however, in retrospect it makes perfect sense the band found themselves in need of some renovation. Yes‘ transition on 90125 has made it the most polarizing album among fans after “Tales from Topographic Oceans”. Even if it’s a disappointment in retrospect that Yes didn’t have another decade of prog masterpieces left in them,90125 stands as a remarkably well-crafted pop record, and one well-deserving of the success it enjoyed throughout the 80s.
Like any mid-life career change, the transition Yes made with 90125 was a risk, but it certainly paid off. Someone with no idea what a mellotron or moog is will almost surely be cognizant of their hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, and it’s unlikely they would be able to hum out the first few lines. Sure enough, I don’t think a song penned under theYes name was so concise and effective since “Roundabout”. Cheesy electronic embellishments and lyrics are easily offset by the song’s perfect melodic writing and indomitable hook factor. With Steve Howe’s absence, the instrumentation sounds a world away from the ‘classic’ Yes, and might have passed for another band entirely had it not been for Jon Anderson’s vocals. If any of classic members truly benefited from the newfound pop leanings on90125, it would be Anderson. Granted, there’s no longer any room for his New Age lyrical dawdling here, but the his distinctive voice feels perfect for the approach the band took here.
90125 pleasantly evades the stereotype of the pop album as being shallow or inconsistent; from a point of songwriting it was the most consistent record they had produced since Going for the One or even before that. It’s granted there are none of the sonic highlights that past records offered (including my much-beloathed Drama) but there’s a sense of purpose to each of the songs that Yes had struggled with on their best days. Say what you will about the dated 80s cheese, almost every song on the album manages to feel memorable and distinctive. This ability to write distinctive tracks served Yes well in the past, but it is especially relevant on 90125; strangely enough, the only forgettable track included- that being “Cinema”- seems most like a trace of their proggy past, a longform introduction to “Leave It” with ambient guitar flourishes that that don’t sound entirely unlike what Howe would have done, had he performed on the album.
The pop direction is shouted loud and clear from virtually every orifice of the album; with that said, Yes were clever to include proggy detours as well. The first couple of minutes of “Changes” sound particularly adventurous, navigating time signatures and vague polyrhythms you would never expect to find on an album so decisively brushed off as ‘pop’. Though “Hearts” is about as saccharine as the title suggests, it’s got a more epic feel to it that might not have sounded out of place on “Tormato”. It’s this thoughtful balance of the adventurous and commercial that makes 90125 sound exciting in an entirely new way for the band. A full-bodied production (also heard onDrama) does a lot to bring Yes into the new era as well.
Of course, as successful as 90125 is as a pop album, it’s certainly not what I would have hoped to hear from Yes. Distancing oneself from progressive rock is pretty forgivable, considering the genre’s dire state at the turn of the decade. Whatever reservations I have towards the album have everything to do with how little it rewards repeated listening. Many will peg that off as an expected result of shorter, simple songwriting, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. The human heart ultimately cares little for how many keyboard solos are in your nine-part suite epic; it cares about an artist’s intimacy and expression of feeling. Whatever you might make of that, there doesn’t seem to be much of that sincerity on 90125. Perhaps Yes had just become too functional or mature for their own good, but the music lacks the personal touch their prior work revelled in. It’s a funny thing to call the album impersonal considering it was the most coherent the band had sounded in over five years. Then again, with the band’s personnel becoming increasingly different from what the popularly declared ‘classic’ lineup, perhaps it’s unfair to judge this as a Yes album to begin with.
Like a Summer blockbuster movie, 90125 isn’t particularly filled with depth or return- value, but it’s skilfully compiled and plenty of fun. Sadly, Yes‘ pop-rock ambitions would take a turn for the dark and dismal following the album’s success.
1. Owner Of A Lonely Heart (4:27)
2. Hold On (5:15)
3. It Can Happen (5:39)
4. Changes (6:16)
5. Cinema (2:09)
6. Leave It (4:10)
7. Our Song (4:16)
8. City Of Love (4:48)
9. Hearts (7:34)
Total Time: 44:34
10. Leave It (Single Remix) (3:56)
11. Make It Easy (6:12)
12. It Can Happen (Cinema Version) (6:05)
13. It’s Over (5:41)
14. Owner Of A Lonely Heart (Extended Remix) (7:05)
15. Leave It (‘A Capella’ Version) (3:18)
* Jon Anderson – vocals
* Chris Squire – bass & vocals
* Tony Kaye – keyboards
* Alan White – drums
* Trevor Rabin – guitars & vocals