I can’t rightly decide whether Union was a good idea in concept or not. The idea of teaming up the ‘classic’ Yes with the fashionably poppish ’80s Yes is about as high concept as you can get in prog without spiralling into bombastic operatic narrative. While it probably sounded like a great way to merge the merits of both eras on paper, the album itself give the impression that it was a misguided decision at best. Rather than capitalize on the ‘best of both worlds’ as Union was no doubt supposed to, the strongest suits of Yes‘ prog and pop halves alike have been dulled to make room for one another. As is the case with every less-favoured Yes record, there are a few worthy gems, but it’s not enough to compensate for Union‘s lack of focus and appalling inconsistency. If any one of the past four albums hadn’t convinced someone that the glory days were indeed over for this band, Union should have been the final nail in the coffin.
Much like the album, I too find myself torn between sides. Part of me would like to see Union in a positive light. After all, given time and patience, I was even able to find some things to love about the unpopular Big Generator, and there are just enough hints of the ‘old’ Yes here to have piqued my interest. On the other hand, even compared to the band’s 80s material, Union feels sloppy. Whether they’re attempting to bring out the proggy side of their sound or opting for lighter fluid pop anthems, the music sounds like it was out of a compromise. Regardless what idealistic notions paved the way for Yes to pull this ‘all together now’ gimmick, every defining problem on Union is a cause of the decision to merge rosters. Looking at the performance credits on the album is enough to give anyone a headache; Trevor Rabin, Alan White and Tony Kaye (for example) are responsible for tracks 4, 6, 7 and 9, and their earlier counterparts are responsible for the rest. Instead of a real union, the band is just as segregated as ever; the only difference is that they’re stuck on the same disc together. Yes‘ have proved a clichéd expression true- it turns out there is such a thing as too many cooks in a kitchen.
Although moments like the introductions to “Lift Me Up” and “Miracle of Life” showcase the instrumental fireworks of the proggy Yes, it’s ultimately clear that the poppy constructs of their 80s material paved the sound here. Even the two aforementioned tracks revert to a fairly recognizable AOR format once they get the technical flash out of their systems. While I’m a defender of 90125 and even Big Generator, with Union the songwriting has taken a general turn for the worse. “I Would Have Waited Forever” is a fun song that would have fit well on Big Generator. “Shock to the System” is easily the best song on Union, featuring strong melodic hooks and an interesting groove. “Masquerade” is a solid classical guitar piece from Howe, and “Angkor Wat” (curiously left off of the original pressing) is an exotic ambient track that sounds like it could have been pulled out of Jon Anderson’s solo career. Also, even though it’s not even a minute long, the interlude “Evensong” (by guest bassist Tony Levin) is a pint-sized gem. Of course, it’s little more than wallpaper ambiance, but it’s still one of the best surprises the album has going for it.
The bad songs on Union are a lot easier to spot than the good ones, and there are plenty more of them too. While the classic roster at least offered “Shock to the System”, the Rabin side of this musical debate doesn’t have a single musical success here. When I was reviewing Big Generator, I remember condemning it for having the worst song yet of Yes‘ career with “Almost Like Love”. Union offers several songs that make “Almost Like Love” look favourable by comparison. “Saving My Heart” is seriously one of the worst songs I’ve heard in ages; saccharine cheese and a god-awful chorus have a way of turning a song sour. “Dangerous” is not quite as bad, but it’s pretty close, sounding like a less-fun, shallower version of the Ghostbusters theme, and as much as many Yes fans have been quick to sing the praises of “Lift Me Up” and “Miracle of Life” for their proggy intros, the songs themselves resort to the same mind-numbing AOR crap the rest of the Rabin material here is plagued with. I was a fan of Trevor Rabin’s refreshing approach on 90125, but by this point, it’s clear he was just as creatively exhausted as the rest of them.
Rather than work together, it truly feels like the two Yes‘s are trying to duke it out on Union. Like two warring nations continuing to fight after they’ve both been nuked, or two swordsmen duelling long after limbs have been hacked off, neither side is anywhere near their best, but it’s nonetheless clear that they aren’t compatible. Were it not for “Shock to the System” and a handful of others, I might consider Union a downright horrible album. Maybe there was a way a so-called union could have worked between the two eras, but this album sure as hell is nowhere near it. To date, Union still counts as one of the most disappointing albums Yes have ever done, and I don’t suspect anyone’s mind is going to change anytime soon.
1. I Would Have Waited Forever (6:32)
2. Shock to the System (5:09)
3. Masquerade (2:18)
4. Lift Me Up (6:30)
5. Without Hope You Cannot Start the Day (5:18)
6. Saving My Heart (4:42)
7. Miracle of Life (7:30)
8. Silent Talking (4:01)
9. The More We Live – Let Go (4:34)
10. Angkor Wat (5:24)
11. Dangerous (Look in the Light of What You’re Searching For) (3:39)
12. Holding On (5:24)
13. Evensong (0:52)
14. Take the Water to the Mountain (3:10)
15. Give and Take (see below)
* Jon Anderson – vocals on 1, 2, 4-5, 8, 10-12, 14-15
* Chris Squire – bass on 4, 6-7, 9, vocals on 1, 4, 6-7, 9
* Tony Levin – bass on 1, 2, 5, 8, 10-12, 14-15
* Tony Kaye – keyboards on 4, 6-7, 9
* Rick Wakeman – keyboards on 1, 2, 5, 8, 10-15
* Alan White – drums on 4, 6-7, 9
* Bill Bruford – drums on 1, 2, 5, 8, 10-15
* Trevor Rabin – guitars and vocals on 4, 6-7, 9
* Steve Howe – guitars on 1-3, 5, 8, 11-12, 14-15