Like SMiLE, Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was the sound of a band bursting its skin; the difference being that where Brian and Van Dyke sought to burst the Beach Boys from the outside, the Four Seasons were keen to break out of what they perceived to be a teenbeat straitjacket. One difference, anyway; another important one being that, with sometime folkie Jake Holmes as the Parks to Bob Gaudio's Wilson, there was no dildo-requesting Mike Love to query procedure - all of the Four Seasons, and especially Frankie Valli, were up for the adventure.
Does it stand up? Even with the Jersey Boys-sparked interest revival I'm not sure there's yet much room for GILG to stand; currently only available as half of a rather expensive twofer (the other half being their 1966 Working My Way Back To You set), it needs proper resuscitation (as does its undervalued 1975 bookend Who Loves You? which despite three top ten singles, one of which was their only UK number one, remains out of print) and I think I may have heard "Soul Of A Woman" creeping out of an obscure nocturnal radio dial at the turn of the nineties; certainly something about this album haunted me then and continues to do so, even now that I've finally found a stand-alone CD copy (complete with minute, Jodrell Bank Grade A telescope-required-to-read reproduction of the original foldout newspaper sleeve format).
It was out of place when it came out and it still hasn't found a new place; it was released on the last day of 1968 and did as well as could be expected (i.e. completely flopped) for even then the attempted avant-garding of MoR was fighting a losing battle - Scott slowly withdrawing into himself, Jimmy Webb gamely carrying on with Richard Harris but doing rather better with Glen Campbell, the Ryan twins huge in Europe but hardly likely to fill Serious Stadia since this was of course the fork in the road; either go down the Zep road of LOUD AND HEAVY or the bedsit acoustic singer/songwriter path - even though it stands up as well as, say, the Fifth Dimension's contemporaneous The Magic Garden (another extended Webb concept) or anything by the Association (but even they were beginning to slip off the charts by the end of '68). Furthermore, it eventually turned out to be just half the story, since the chronicles of Watertown, complete with cross-lyrical references, were continued on Sinatra's Watertown album, also written and produced by Gaudio and Holmes.
The Sinatra reference sums it up; Watertown, a place which the aesthetic boom, if not surface prosperity, has passed by. Here are all the lumbered souls who would have understood "Let The Heartaches Begin" in an instant, never fashionable, striving, or is that struggling, to keep afloat, keep whatever they can of themselves before it all collapses; meanwhile, on their tinted semicircular mirror floating out upon the world, they see change and blood and it confuses them; the album's bookend setpieces, "American Crucifixion Resurrection" and "Soul Of A Woman," look alternately outward and inward, the former commencing with sombrely brash orchestrations and the chant of "the King is dead, long live the (Martin Luther) King," the latter moving from courtly baroque to "Beggin'" teen swerve via Song Cycle hanging question marks ("and so you give yourself to him...forever...") before, as a precedent to the Beach Boys' "When Girls Get Together," ushering in the symbolic mortality, the life now merging with Charles Callelo's high, quiet Unanswered Question strings...it begins with Barack and ends with Hillary?
Sometimes it strives a little too mechanically - the title track with its "Hey Jude" extended outro and anticipated battery of backwards drums, guitars etc., for instance - but it works most warmly when it aims at the microscope of everyday minutiae; the ice cream melt of tears that is "Saturday's Father" and especially "Look Up, Look Down," simultaneously the album's most conventional and radical track - sprites of memory hovering greyly around the dying home as Valli's lead, as tender and dread-filled as it has ever been, sings with calm franticity about the living death that the song's central relationship has become; she smiles at his kiss, but in truth she's gone - he's betrayed her, and he knows it, and the pull of the sliver of grievous guilt will summon the cobwebs before any rainbows have a chance to grow. Which is how a lot of people felt about things generally as 1968 solidified into 1969. At least, that's what I'm told.