With Heaven and Earth, Yes has recaptured the unabashedly hopeful disposition of the Jon Anderson years, but somehow lost nearly all of its sharper musical edges. Jon Davison, the second Yes replacement since its founding vocalist’s most recent departure in 2008, brings a determinedly sunny disposition to the proceedings — and the effect seems to be a general bleaching of what made them interesting in the first place.
Save for a smattering of exceptions, including the brilliantly layered “Light of the Ages” and ferociously purgative “Subway Walls,” this amounts to prog for the easy-listening set.
A triumph of conception, the late-arriving “Light of the Ages” finds Yes exploring a musical soundscape as inspiring as its narrative counterpoint. Ironically, it’s the only song credited solely to Davison on Heaven and Earth, due in July 2014 via Frontiers. Elsewhere, the deeply likeable Davison works extensively with the others, having a generally narcotic impact.
“To Ascend,” though ostensibly a collaboration with Davison and Yes drummer Alan White, is enveloped not in challenging cadence by pillowy orchestral gauze. Steve Howe’s “It’s All We Know,” a sing-songy AM radio throwback, speaks of an adventure it can’t bring itself to actually participate in — until Howe unleashes an out-of-place, frustrated-sounding riff.
Better over the length of its conception is “The Game,” a sweetly conveyed track that utilizes every part of Davison’s vocal range to shape a love-focused carpe diem message. “Step Beyond,” composed by Howe and Davison, unleashes another rare moment of algebraic wit from the guitarist, but even that’s encircled by a cutesy, Buggles-inflected keyboard signature from Geoff Downes. Chris Squire’s co-written “In a World of Our Own” conjures a few duskier undertones, but not many.
Even “Subway Walls,” the album’s lone Davison/Downes collaboration, threatens to conclude Heaven and Hall with a deflating “To Ascend”-esque chamber-music flourish before Yes (finally!) finds this tough little groove through the verse. A gnarly bass from Squire leads the group into what becomes a darkly cathartic section, after so much squishy sweetness. Downes switches to a choogling organ, as Howe simply boils over. There is, within this song’s angry push back, a companion piece to “Light of the Ages” that shows just where this album could have gone, had things been a bit different.
Instead, Heaven and Earth couldn’t feel softer and, at times, more featureless.
Of course, all of this makes Davison/Howe’s “Believe Again” this weirdly appropriate choice as an advance sample, since that narrow sliver of this eight-minute song focuses on its rather pedestrian first half. More pretty than it is challenging early on, the song eventually tries to gather itself into something more interesting during a lengthy instrumental section. But, as with so much of what follows on Heaven and Earth, even these restless shivers are not enough to jostle Yes out of its extended slumber.