Off the Charts

Dan Fogelberg

There was a time when Dan Fogelberg’s albums sold like crazy, but a lot of people made fun of his sappy sound [me, amongst them—sorry! —Ed.]. The fact is, he churned out a lot of albums over thirty years, but had only a few lasting hits. And there’s far more to the Illinois native’s output than the cheesy love lyrics and breathy voice that made him famous.

Admittedly, his first album, Home Free (1972), contains a large helping of Seventies synth syrup, but there is one track that hints at a more interesting songwriter. “Wysteria” goes light on the synthesizers and lets simple acoustic fingerpicking bring out some unusual chord progressions. Fogelberg was a skilled guitarist, as he shows in the overdubbed solo at 1:00. His lyrics about a troubled but strong woman avoid sentimentality while his voice cracks slightly with a melancholy that seems genuine.

 

In his next two albums, Souvenirs (1974) and Captured Angel (1975), Fogelberg moved more solidly toward a folk sound. There’s also a touch of rock showing up on some tracks, for example “The Last Nail,” from Captured Angel. It starts out acoustic, but that gentle sound gets nudged out in the third verse by electric guitar and drums (longtime Fogelberg backer Russ Kunkel, although most of the instruments on this album are played by Fogelberg himself).

Also worth noting here is a common characteristic of the best Fogelberg lyrics, moments of very specific and unusual imagery that bring the world of the song into vivid color: “We walked together through the gardens and graves…”

 

Although the pendulum swung back to overly sweet synth sounds and surface-level love songs for Nether Lands (1977), the following album gave Fogelberg more street cred in the neighborhood of rock and roll. Phoenix, which went double-platinum in 1979, amps up the intensity. “Face the Fire” has all the characteristics of a hard rock anthem, except that it’s about protesting nuclear and other popular energy sources in favor of solar:

 

Despite such heavy tracks, Fogelberg doesn’t abandon his previous styles as he gains new ones. Prime example: there was a time when you couldn’t go to a wedding without hearing his saccharine-oozing ballad “Longer,” which also comes from the Phoenix album.

Among the handful of Fogelberg songs that still get any airplay are “The Same Auld Lang Syne” and “Leader of the Band,” the two songs that really don’t fit with the rest of his 1981 two-disc set, Innocent Age. Overall, Innocent Age is a song cycle in the classical sense – short songs somehow related to each other; in this case, I would say the theme is man’s relationship with nature and the cosmos, not to mention the meaning of life. Those two hit songs are the only ones that deal with more specifically personal topics.

On display in the other 15 cuts are Fogelberg’s philosophical mind, expressed in some wise and articulate poetry. In “Stolen Moments,” he pithily captures a truth about how humans interact: “Waiting out the worst, we keep the best inside us / in hopes our hearts can hide us, in hopes our tears don’t show.” The music is catchy old-school rock, with some interesting shapes to the phrases, but not so complicated that they pull attention from the lyrics:

 

The Innocent Age cycle ends with “Ghosts,” one of Fogelberg’s finest songs. The track features singing that’s noteworthy for its range, control, and expressiveness as part of an artful arrangement (produced by Fogelberg with Marty Lewis) that blooms from lone piano to full strings and chorus, then dwindles again to eerie quiet. Dealing with the sense of loss we humans inevitably experience as time goes by and things change, the lyrics include some of that distinctive Fogelberg imagery: “Along the walls in shadowed rafters / Moving like a thought through haunted atmospheres…”

 

Country music was a big influence on Fogelberg; he honed his chops as a session musician in Tennessee as a young man. The album High Country Snows (1985) is dedicated to that genre. And he tangles with the best: “Shallow Rivers” is a knee-slapper featuring masters like Herb Peterson on banjo, Charlie McCoy on harmonica, David Grisman on mandolin, and Jim Buchanan on fiddle. Fogelberg seems as comfortable writing and playing Opry-style tunes as he does with folk and rock.

 

With Afro-Cuban inspired percussion and R&B-style back-up brass, “Holy Road” is an example of the world of musical influence Fogelberg welcomed into the sessions for his 1993 album River of Souls. (I also recommend the joyous tribute to the music of Africa in “Serengeti Moon.”) The pleasing tenor voice of Fogelberg’s youth is shot, but he takes advantage of the hoarseness to push out a rugged, soulful performance.

 

The final Fogelberg album is Love in Time. This was released by his widow in 2009, two years after his death from cancer at 56. It comprises the title song (a charity single he’d written for her as a Valentine’s gift in 2005) plus 11 unpublished songs. “Come to the Harbor” is a fitting farewell for us. The song pays tribute to Fogelberg’s early love of both country and Celtic music. His physical weakness may show in the wobble of his voice, but his spirit is still flying free with the lilting melody.

 

Dan Fogelberg was very much an artist of his time: an intelligent, thoughtful, gentle wordsmith with wide-ranging taste that he was determined to explore. His like is not welcome on the charts anymore, and much of his music has already fallen into obscurity. There’s a movement to change that, though. In September 2017, the Tennessee Performing Arts Center presented the world premiere of Part of the Plan, a jukebox musical with a score made up entirely of Fogelberg songs.

Will it ever come to Broadway and bring this songwriter back into the limelight? Probably not. But it’s good to know that someone cares enough to try.

[Thanks to Anne for making me take another look at Fogelberg’s catalog. His work was nowhere near as precious as I recall, and a number of his songs are pretty compelling. For an interesting alternate take on his music, check out the album, A Tribute to Dan Fogelberg, available on Tidal and Amazon. featuring remarkable performances from Donna Summer and Jimmy  Buffett, of all people, along with many others. I’d pass on Michael McDonald and Zac Brown—but then, I usually do.–-Ed.]