I've been regularly listening to George's Cloud Nine the last few weeks. And to be honest, it's been a curious experience. Prior to this, I was plenty familiar with the album and considered it a solid if somewhat dated affair. Recently though, I've found myself oscillating between two divergent minds: one is enthusiastic about what it's hearing while the other is much less so; one detects a skilled and canny sense of song-craftsmanship that emphasizes the complementary aspects of pop and rock while the other often picks up the unfortunate scent of cheesy '80s schlock. How to reconcile these inclinations?
It's possible that my original opinion - "solid if somewhat dated" - remains what I actually think and, in a way, represents the sum of the two takes that have been competing within me. That seems amiss though, because the reactions that Cloud Nine has elicited from me of late have been strong and pointed (even if contradictory). In other words, they're not suited for an aggregate view marked by slightly hesitant approval. After the first listen several weeks ago, I happily bought into the aims and execution of the album. Song after song, from the mid-tempo moodiness of the title track to the nuanced swagger of "Fish on the Sand" to celebratory affection of "Got My Mind Set on You," seemed to confirm that slick and stylized pop was not only not beneath George but was even a winning fit for his talents. The union of producer/ELO frontman Jeff Lynne and George appeared to work swimmingly.
But not long after this idea formed I started to sour on the album. I think elements of its '80s-ness really began to stand out and challenge my prior appreciation. The more I focused on the details of certain songs - like the bridge on "That's What It Takes" or sections of the lyric from "Wreck of the Hesperus" - the more I felt I had inadequately scrutinized the whole of Cloud Nine and would likely need to scale back my enthusiasm in a significant way. Owing to moments of schlock, over-production, and hollow lyricism, this did happen. Though relapses would subsequently occur, continuing my confused digestion of the album.
So where do I stand? I trust that I, like many others, will always tout "When We Was Fab" and "Got My Mind Set on You" as genuine classics. They're both remarkable songs. Below them, in the "solidly satisfying" category, I'd place the title track, "Fish on the Sand," and "Just For Today." Stepping back, I think Cloud Nine is one of those albums with an abundance of surface appeal. As a whole, it tends to feel right and delivers a kind of sonic pleasure that doesn't always penetrate too far into you, but more so satisfies when you're largely just aware of the vibe and texture of a song. The general thrust of Cloud Nine is not without bona fide rewards, then, but a more deliberate intake of the album produces something different. It produces a measure of disappointment. It produces a measure of frustration with various manifestations of a pop style that almost inevitably were to age imperfectly (and in some cases, quite poorly). Cloud Nine just can't overcome certain aspects of the context in which it was made. It's a pleasing pop album and still "works" to a large extent. But in 2009, I find it's successful in proportion to what you demand of the listening experience.