The turn of the decade proved to be the most prolific time for the Grateful Dead. After their musical reinvention earlier in the year on Workingman’s Dead (1970), the band went into the studio once again after some long touring and more extensive writing. Not only had the touring proven helpful to their writing, it also proved harmful to the overall group after a drug raid on their hotel in New Orleans. This resulted in arrests, drug confiscation, a publicity nightmare, and sadly long time pianist and collaborator Tom Constanten leaving the group. Adversity and experience would prove to be vital in the group’s growth, helping their craft their excellent album, 1970’s American Beauty.
Side One begins with the great folk rock song, “Box of Rain”. Phil’s vocals though not perfect are full of emotion and maturity. Starting the album with a somber song devoted to Phil’s dying father sets the album up to show that this band isn’t the same raucous LSD munching kids. This an adult band dealing with real problems now, like running into the law, love lost, and death of friends and family. The next track, “Friend of the Devil” begins with some folk picking on the guitar and a driving bass line by Lesh until the band kicks in. Both guitars seem to pick around each other and pick one another up, then pick and strum the chorus in harmony. The outlaw lyricism of a man running away from entanglements with women in different cities, coupled with the double meaning of police and their dogs to the devil and his hellhounds, prove Robert Hunter was in peak form as the group’s lyricist. “Sugar Magnolia” is a beautiful country rock tune led by Bob Weir. This track proves to bring Bob up to a frontman status with his full vocals. This track, which in time has become of the most well-known and classic by the group, has some of the best harmonies across this album. The track has a more mellow sound, but the ending “Sunshine Daydream” coda lends itself perfectly to some improvisational jamming in a live setting.
On “Operator” Pigpen breaks in with his own vocals on a track he wrote for himself, the only one he would have on a studio album in his time with the band. Once again shows his ability to put the harmonica in just the write places to emphasize emotion like he had on the previous album. The next track, “Candyman” is so harmony heavy, including the best three part harmony the group has done to date, the true stand out section of the song is Garcia’s ghostly pedal steel guitar. Again Hunter’s lyricism echoes that of an outlaw, this time a drug dealer (most likely cocaine) coming back to enact revenge. The song comes to an end with some strong church-like organ lines, a crescendo of vocal harmonies and a fade into the dark, leaving the fate of the Candyman up the thoughts of the listener.
Upon flipping over the record and entering Side Two, there have already been a real mix of sounds and lyrics. Unknown whether the next side will continue to praise outlaw countrymen or return to the introspection of the first track, “Ripple” is a welcomed surprise. The track is the most emotional and mature song to date. The strumming mandolin throughout the chorus is beautiful and driving. The harmonies in the pre-chorus are tinged with nostalgia. The lyrics speak of moving through the world alone, with each step needing to be taken on your own. But Hunter also suggests this path is easier when you bring the music with you. This leads into the moving “la da da” coda at the end contains a vocal chorus that reassures the listener that no matter where they go the music will follow and help along every step of the journey. It’s no wonder why this song is a favorite among Deadheads. Deadheads have always felt like the loners, the lost, and the outlaws, but the band and their music have and will be there for them on the steps along their own paths. “Ripple” is a standout track, but just is the beginning of side two.
The next track “Brokedown Palace” begins so softly, but once again shows the dead at their best. The track lyrically is a fantastic piece with open interpretation. The narrator speaks of love lost, potentially losing a lover or parent. But also the track speaks of dying themselves, and sitting by the river and letting go. The songs open lyrics have lead to touching the listener and invoking the feeling of loss but knowing everything is going to be alright afterwards. Jerry’s emotional vocal performance of the song is only punctuated by the perfect harmonies behind him. Apart from the lyrics and vocal performance, the song is lead by jazzy piano playing by Howard Wales, reminiscent of The Band, and a punchy bass melody by Phil Lesh. When Jerry’s pedal steel comes in, it seeks only to reflect the anguish in his voice. (Note: Though I don’t normally don’t speak in the first person and talk too personally about the songs, this is my favorite of all their tunes. Like many Deadhead’s this is the track I’d like played at my funeral and will resonate with me as long as I too move through many more worlds since leaving home.)
The tone shifts on “Til the Morning Comes”, the first real rocking track on the record. Of all the songs on the album, this one oozes late-60’s structure and feels the most dated. The Dead once again shift the tone on “Attics of my Life”. The song is a harmony led track that sounds more church choir than Grateful Dead. Again Hunter writes pure poetry this time about an aging music in search of the sound, a song that seems more and more appropriate now as the members of the Dead currently head into the later years of their lives.Truckin’ is the quintessential Grateful Dead song. It’s a country rocker with great guitar playing from both Garcia and Weir. The vocal lead is swapped between the pair as well, allowing each to show off their abilities. Hunter’s lyrics in “Truckin’” are a description of the Grateful Dead at their core, a band “truckin’” throughout the U.S. and that has been on a “long strange trip” up to this point.
In total, the album is a further dive into their new Americana sound. Melodies in this album are tight and perfected. Lyrics and themes are much more mature. This album better showcases each member than the prior album with a Phil Lesh led track, a great Pigpen track, and Bob Weir coming out as an equal frontman with Jerry Garcia. The album has a quality of musical healing. While these musicians were all struggling with their own issues and reflecting those into the music, they produced an album which works to find listeners throughout multiple stages of their lives. The album as a whole feels like their interpretation of the country-folk-western sound. This leads to most of the tracks feeling timeless. This timeless sound coupled with Robert Hunter’s most meaningful and realized lyricism to date, is why American Beauty is the Grateful Dead’s finest studio album.