Rock column, Mail on Sunday, October 21 2007

The Eagles

Long Road Out Of Eden
Mercury, October 29

Long Road Out Of Eden gives new meaning to the old cliche ‘long-awaited’. This is the Eagles’ first full studio album for 28 years. It’s like finding Jimmy Carter running for the White House.

The Eagles never did anything by halves, whether it was imagery (‘on a dark desert highway…’), success (Their Greatest Hits is America’s best-selling album ever), or internecine feuding (the guitarist Don Felder reputedly said to the singer Glenn Frey in mid-gig: ‘Three more songs till I kick your ass, pal’). True to form, this record has had a spectacular gestation.

After the ass-kicking, the Eagles were history. Asked if they would ever reunite, Frey’s co-singer, Don Henley, famously said, ‘When hell freezes over.’ In 1994, they duly announced the Hell Freezes Over tour. Since Felder quit in 2001, they have toured regularly, with aplomb.

A new album has long been promised but never seriously expected. Henley and Frey started writing it in the late Nineties – in separate studios. Eventually they saw that it was in danger of taking another 20 years. So they did sessions together, spread over 21 months, with the other Eagles, Joe Walsh and Timothy B Schmit, dropping by as required. By now, songs were pouring out of them.

This isn’t just the return of a great band. It’s hello again to a dying format: the double album. At 95 minutes long, it could hardly be more Seventies if it came with a free waterbed.

It’s also the return of a genre. Since 1979, most schools of rock have come round again, but the Eagles’ particular hybrid – epic soft-rock with countryish tunes and biting lyrics – has remained in the garage, like a classic car.

It therefore feels neither fashionable nor unfashionable. The first disc, conceived as a re-introduction, is just an Eagles record, from the silky harmonies to the crunchy guitars and spiky observations.

This disc alone is a fine comeback. A short, subtle environmental lament, No More Walks In The Wood, sung almost unaccompanied, leads into the chugging How Long, which sounds like an Eagles song, but isn’t exactly. They played it on Dutch television in 1974 but left it to the author, JD Souther, to record, and only stumbled across it again this year, when Frey’s children saw a clip on YouTube. As the kids chortled at his hairstyle, his wife persuaded him it was an Eagles classic.

It’s close, but better songs are just behind: Busy Being Fabulous, an acidic little relationship memoir; Do Something, an orthodox but gorgeous country ballad; What Do I Do With My Heart, a wistful kiss-off which turns into something bigger. And Waiting In The Weeds is an Eagles epic: an elegantly circular melody, welded to grandiose metaphors.

‘I’ve been biding time with crows and sparrows,’ Henley sings, ‘while peacocks prance and strut upon the stage.’ That line is easily mocked, but it shows his fearlessness. The song is a bullseye.

Disc two opens with something even more ambitious: the title track, a 10-minute tilt at American imperialism. It’s not quite Hotel California, because the melody is workmanlike, but on most fronts – literacy, pacing, cosmic guitar solo – it’s a giant.

To follow, there’s a gentle instrumental, a pacifist spin on the Battle Hymn Of The Republic. The attack on America’s failings resumes with Frail Grasp On The Big Picture, which targets religious bigotry and journalism (‘dead and gone,’ apparently). It’s sparky, but there’s a whiff of grumpy old men.

Things perk up as Walsh delivers one of his deadpan satires and Frey croons a waltz, I Love To Watch A Woman Dance, which is cloying in places but irresistibly mellow: super-soft rock. The final four tracks are all meaty – a tender love song, a warm Latin ballad, a harmony-fest, and best of all, Business As Usual, a caustic look at the corporate world, which hasn’t stopped the Eagles doing a distribution deal with Wal-Mart. Middle America won’t know whether to sing along or choke on its cheeseburger.

Only about three songs feel like filler, and the division into two discs makes sense: first a refresher course, then a full rebirth. It all adds up to a feast of slow food. Don’t write Jimmy Carter off yet.