After achieving great mainstream success with In the Dark, the Grateful Dead toured to greater and greater audiences. This newfound success also came with pressure to release a new album. In February of 1989, the Grateful Dead decided to get back into the studio to work on their 13th album. With In the Dark, the Dead spent seven years on the road perfecting the songs for the new album. For this new album, the band stepped into the studio with no prior work on the new songs. What resulted was Built to Last, a nine song album written and recorded in only eight months.
Unfortunately, Built to Last is a disjointed album from start to finish. The final album in the Grateful Dead studio discography is one with high highs and very low lows. The album is an absolute group effort, featuring four songs by Brent Mydland, three by Jerry Garcia, and two by Bob Weir.
The track list contains some real gems, most notably Brent Mydland’s “Blow Away” which would become a legendary live song. Some of the other tracks that still contain that Grateful Dead vibe are “Built to Last” and “Foolish Heart”, both Garcia and Robert Hunter collaborations. Though his voice sounds raggedy and failing, Garcia still manages to save the album when his voice is on the track. His finest moment on the album comes on the track, “Standing on the Moon.” Co-written by Robert Hunter, the track is beautiful and full of retrospection. The lyrics “A lovely view of heaven, but I’d rather be with you” are a perfect description of Garcia’s life at that moment, health failing but dedicated to playing the music for his fans.
Built to Last also features some real disappointing tracks. With the exception of “Blow Away”, the rest of Mydlands contributions come off as boring soft rock. Even the final song on the album “I Will Take You Home” is a bizarre lullaby and doesn’t sound like it should be the last song ever released on a Grateful Dead studio album. However it wasn’t just Mydland who disappoints, but Bob Weir’s contributions all fall flat. “Victim or the Crime” is not catchy, his vocal performance is flat, and it seems like he was trying to capture the spirit of the In the Dark’s “Hell in a Bucket.” Though his other contribution, “Picasso Moon,” is a rocker in the vein of ‘80s Rolling Stones, it comes up short in the greater Weir/Barlow discography. However the track is saved by Garcia’s guitar on the track, resulting in one of the few moments in the album where Garcia plays with his all.
Built to Last is a sad send off for the group. After 13 studio albums and over 24 years together, the band finally feels like they should just “play the hits.” The group retreated back to a life of touring. Even though the group had wildly successful tours, drug abuse continued to get worse for some members. In 1990, less than a year after the release of Built to Last, keyboardist Brent Mydland died from an overdose of cocaine and morphine. Mydland’s death would rock the group and Jerry Garcia in particular.
Following Built to Last and Mydland’s death, the band would enter their final lineup adding Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby on keys. The Grateful Dead would spend the next five years touring and never released another studio work.
From the Author: In two weeks, I will begin on reviewing the live albums. Every other week I will post a new review of a live album picked at random. The style of the reviews will change a bit, but each time I will focus on the show and highlight songs we’ve never covered. The first album we will start with is Europe ’72: Vol. 16.