I’m here to argue on behalf of an album that nobody listens to anymore, that — in fact — nobody even listened to at the time. Blame George Harrison, blame his label, blame the burgeoning MTV era.
But, really, you can’t blame the songs, despite a few mishaps with the then-contemporary synthesizer. Harrison, whatever his antipathy about the process after tangling with Warners Bros. for years, had found a new center within his marriage and the birth of a son. Taken together, that made for a surprisingly cheery, though determinedly inward set of songs for Gone Troppo. It’s an album marked by a desire to be part of — really part of — smaller things after the big things have let you down.
The project, actually, could be favorably compared with the pastoral joys of John Lennon’s earlier Double Fantasy, though it never is. Instead, Gone Troppo — which Harrison refused to even promote — sunk to the bottom of his discography, the last album on a miserable contract. The story was that Harrison’s brother, who worked as a gardener at his estate, didn’t even know that Gone Troppo had been issued. In keeping, Harrison took a smaller-scale approach with the album, which followed an all-star cast on 1981′s pasted together mish-mash Somewhere in England. He worked with several of the same foundational players, and included only a small smattering of featured guests, among them Deep Purple’s Jon Lord and long-time confederate Billy Preston.
Then Harrison goes and starts the album with perhaps its biggest misstep, the keyboard-driven “Wake Up My Love,” which sounds like Elton John at his 1980s worst. (Stream it!: “Wake Up My Love.”) Released as the album’s first single, it bears an uncomfortable resemblance (both in tone, and in chart performance) to “Teardrops” from Somewhere in England. Neither reached the Top 40 in America, and both finished unranked in the UK. Beneath the sophomoric synth riff, however, there seems to be a good song struggling to get out, as Harrison cries: “Christ, I’m looking for some light.”
The subsequent “That’s the Way It Goes” finds him resigned to that darkness, becoming absorbed in a potent rumination on the slide. It’s a remarkable departure for a performer best known for a determined kind of proselytizing on tracks like from “Awaiting on You All” and “Living in the Material World” to the more recent “That Which I Have Lost” — and the first hint of the more mainstream turn that Harrison would take on 1987′s comeback Cloud Nine. Later, “Mystical One” finds Harrison looking not just for a peaceable path, but one that doesn’t require him to act as both rocker and teacher. The utterly remarkable “Unknown Delight,” written for the newborn Dhani, reflects an emerging focus on life’s personal joys. Harrison’s contentment is not only complete, it’s deeper than anything he’d previously contemplated.
There are a couple of near misses — and one other complete whiff. The romantic dobro-driven “Greece,” for instance, would have been a touching success but for some needless spoken-word references to Greek-related esoterica. Harrison takes his title-track tribute to a newly purchased island home in the Coral Sea off the coast of Australia too far when he adds a few lines of pigeon English — ruining a song that undulates along with this delightful sense of free-wheeling promise on the strength of producer Ray Cooper’s marimbas. And even Preston, who was always quick with a smile, is unable to save the utterly maudlin, strangely misplaced “Baby Don’t Run Away.”
Still, within the consistently overlooked Gone Troppo lay the seeds of Harrison’s looming third-act resurgence — beginning with a cover of the Stereos’ obscure 1961 song “I Really Love You.” He would return to the same dusty stack of old albums for 1987′s Jeff Lynne-produced “Got My Mind Set On You,” catapulting to the top of the charts with a song originally issued by the equally unsung James Ray in 1962. (Harrison also issued a tough 1984 update of Bob Dylan’s largely forgotten “I Don’t Want To Do It” prior to joining forces with the producer/superfan Lynne.)
Gone Troppo would end with a flourish, as Harrison unfurled the Beatle-esque “Dream Away” before settling into a melancholy dreamstate not unlike “Blue Jay Way” — but nowhere near as boring — on “Circles.” The stage was set, even if no one knew it just yet, for Harrison’s return.