Justin Vernon's second annual Eaux Claires music festival has come and gone, having featured an impressively diverse line-up of currently relevant and classically hip acts: James Blake, Phosphorescent, Erykah Badu, Jenny Lewis, the Melvins, Mavis Staples, Beach House, Cornelius performing Fantasma (!), a full performance of a surprise new album from Vernon's Bon Iver, and so much more that's had people buzzing for more than a month afterward. However, amongst the heavyweight roster was a rather curious inclusion: Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers performing the 1986 LP The Way It Is. Granted, that album was a hugely popular hit and 2016 marks its 30th anniversary, but The Way It Is has always seemed to be more like a punchline to a joke about mediocre tastes in the 1980's than a serious landmark record.
It seemed doubtful that the demographic of Eaux Claires would be nostalgic for an adult contemporary album older than a wide majority of its (target-age) attendees. It was, admittedly, laughably puzzling to see Bruce Hornsby's name in the lineup, not to mention celebrating an album that, arguably, too few people care about.
Nonetheless, it seems an opportune time to give that album a critical reevaluation in recognition of its 30th anniversary. At the very least, maybe there's something to learn from it and how we treat aging cultural artifacts. While The Way It Is was a major commercial success- mostly on the back of the hit singles "Mandolin Rain," "Every Little Kiss," and the album's titular track- it's routinely (and somewhat blindly) dismissed as a schlocky collection of '80s tripe.
Beyond the uneven cultural appreciation of that one album, Hornsby's legacy is often reduced to that of a 1980s' joke: Imagine if Billy Joel or Steve Winwood wrote lyrics like John Mellencamp. Hornsby's rarely been revered as a paragon of cool, as evidenced in Bobcat Goldthwait's 2009 film World's Greatest Dad. Protagonist Lance's (Robin Williams) favorite artist is Hornsby, and that plotline is treated as a running joke to exhibit Lance's inherit lame-ness. By the time Hornsby appears as himself, it goes from being a joke to being an incredibly sad facet of Lance's madness. Certainly not a ringing endorsement of Hornsby, but kudos to him for having a good, self-deprecating sense of humor. Beyond that cameo, in an era where so many artists get a proper re-evalutaion, why does that courtesy seem to elude Hornsby?
Although there is a large deficit of hip points Hornsby's in pop persona, he has always been a respected musician's musician, having collaborated with industry luminaries such as the Grateful Dead (he was an unofficial member of the band for 100+ shows in the twilight of their career in the early 1990s), bluegrass hero Ricky Skaggs, jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Stevie Nicks, Squeeze, and even Sheena Easton (look for him in the below music video for "Strut," in his sunglasses-clad glory).
As a matter of fact, a four-year-old me recognized his distinctive piano playing in Don Henley's "The End of the Innocence," going so far as to argue with my parents that it was a Bruce Hornsby song, but he'd smoked too many cigarettes in the years since The Way It Is. But I digress, while his talent has been recognized and celebrated by his peers in music, artists in other media have also called upon his skills. Most recently, Hornsby scored Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer and sat in with the Roots on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. As impressive as his entertainment resume is, it screams of inconsistency when compared to his studio output.
On the surface, the worst you can say about Hornsby's debut LP The Way It Is is that the production does not play to his or the Range's strengths. The sound of the band drowns in a sea of '80s' production schmaltz. The gooey synthesizers are turned up way too loud in the mix, as are the garish guitar tones. These crimes against good taste are immediately present within the first few moments of the opening track, "On The Western Skyline." It begins rather promisingly, with an upbeat Southern-flavored intro complemented with sweeping fiddle bow strokes, dramatic piano chords, and a subtle drop of mandolin. It's a little over the top, but the 1986 date stamp makes the hyperbolic proceedings forgivable. In fact, it's downright enjoyable and steps above the current stylings of Mumford & Sons or the Avett Brothers...until the damn guitar comes in and ruins everything. It's hard to imagine anybody listening to this recording for the first time in 2016 and ably stifling their laughter as soon as they hear the extraordinarily cheesy wailing. The juxaposition between serious roots band jamming and Miami Vice-style guitar noodling is jarring. "On the Western Skyline" is a genteel Southern anthem awkwardly packed with images akin to shots of bikinis, beach volleyball, and palatial condos on the seaside.
That clumsy combination of hammy studio mixing and serious playing pretty much sums up the entire album. However, when the marriage of production and performance works, the results are legimately timeless. The Way It Is is at its peak when the hit singles appear. While the lesser-known "Every Little Kiss" is a certainly fun little diddy mostly free of cringe-worthy knob twiddling, "Mandolin Rain," Hornsby's second-most popular song (sorry fans of "Across the River"), is a supreme delight. Despite its synth-glaze and mechanical drum sound, it has aged quite well. Yes, it's a somber soft rock classic that rivals a Michael McDonald Motown cover with minimal cutting-edge appeal. However, it's also remarkably beautiful and it showcases how underrated Hornsby is as a lyricist. The cadence of the chorus and the dramatic atmosphere work really well here. Thankfully, the actual mandolin playing accentuates the song, rather than act as a distraction. It's a song that could have a second life via a contemporary cover. Lyrically, it wouldn't be out of this world to hear it sung by Nick Cave or Tom Waits.
Of course, The Way It Is's titular track is a pop culture classic that people are well aware, even if they don't know who Hornsby is. The song has endured beyond Hornsby's rise-and-fall as an industry star, and it's not just because Tupac and a several other hip-hop acts have been sampling the song in the years since its reign atop the Billboard Hot 100. In 1986, Hornsby was singing about Civil Rights at the height of the Reagan-era, briefly outshining the political rhetoric of another, more revered "Bruce." He addressed- and checked his own- white privilege some 20-30 years before Macklemore. That may seem like an exaggeration, and the lyrics are a little ham-fisted at times, but Hornsby delivered an important message to millions of white people in the 1980s and stuffed it in an impossibly melodic song. Not many pop songs with immense success from white, Southern men have dealt with racism and classicism so bluntly. Droves of yuppies bought this record on the strength of that song alone, meaning on some level Hornsby tricked people into checking their own privilege. Sure, a lot of people probably didn't get it, but the song still endures for future generations to grab ahold of. Perhaps that's giving Hornsby too much credit, but removed from its adult contemporary context, "The Way It Is" is a genuinely moving and thought-provoking song. At the very least, when it comes to #1 singles from 1986 it's certainly a better option than the cloyingly insincere "That's What Friends Are For."
And yet, 30 years on, the remainder of The Way It Is is a somewhat of a milquetoast disappointment. The over-the-top production never takes a backseat to the well-written songs on this record. Even when Huey Lewis steps in, he can't save the album from drowning in stadium rock dreck. The three songs Lewis produces- "The Long Race," "Down the Road Tonight," and "The River Runs Low"- come off as deliberate attempts to gain a faux-roots rock following (the BoDeans, aforementioned Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and nearly Joshua Tree-era U2 are all huge at this point in the mid-1980s) and they've aged about as well as Dan Qualye's political aspirations. And the less said about the embarrassment that is "The Wild Frontier," the better, although imagine taking all of the offensive elements from Three Amigos (1986) and removing all of the humor and irony. Everything else- and there's not much left- is depressingly forgettable, at least from a sonic standpoint.
It all comes down to the production, from the more-than-occasional cheesy guitar riffs to the big question: Why in the hell do majority of the drums sound like they were programmed on a cheap Casio machine? Drummer John Molo was certainly a capable drummer not worthy of being drowned out by reverb! Beyond Hornsby's legitimately great piano playing and adequate songwriting (mostly co-written with his brother, John), the Range is clearly an immensely talented band. Still, the recording regrettably suffers from a cocaine-sheen of production. Bruce Hornsby and The Range sound like they all recorded this album in ill-fitting suits. Had it been more of a lo-fi effort, The Way It Is would easily be one of the most revered records of the 1980s.
Beyond the production woes, Hornsby's record label, RCA, may have deprived him of long-term artistic accolades. When RCA released The Way It Is 30 years ago, they seemed to have no idea what they had. The album was originally marketed to new age audiences and featured different cover art, along with alternate mixes of two songs. Once "The Way It Is" made its way to radio stations and MTV and rocketed up the charts, however, the album was re-released with new art work and heavier promotion off of the back of the single's surprisingly rapid success. RCA knew when to capitalize on the success of Hornsby's song once it became a hit, but it was a mere fluke that proved they were more lucky than savvy. In other words, the perceived lack of enduring artistic success of Hornsby's debut record is not his fault, but rather the fault of a greedy and clueless record label.
Which brings us to 2016, where 30 years later at Eaux Claires the audience seemingly had little to squeal about. Despite The Way It Is's lack of cultural capital, it makes total sense that Hornsby was at the festival: Justin Vernon claims that Hornsby is a hero of his, and the influence of The Way It Is can easily be heard all over 2011's Bon Iver. Beyond his influencing, to Hornsby's credit, he's incredibly self-deprecating when it comes to praise over The Way It Is. During his performance of the album at Eaux Claires, with his genuinely impressive Noisemakers, he marred the set with quips about how the album's sequence doesn't lend itself well to a live set list and that he's had a "sorry-ass recording career." Furthermore, he alluded to the fact that he and the band would write songs that they were so happy with, they'd hastily rush to record them in the studio. As a result, they rarely turned out in a way that satisfied him, but they'd improve the songs on stage. If his performance at Eaux Claires is any indication, it's absolutely true (save for a weak vocal performance on "Mandolin Rain"). This revelation from Hornsby deduces that The Way It Is to a collection of songs recorded in the studio that were merely in their gestation period. Had the album been recorded months later, this would 30th anniversary would likely have been highly lauded, rather than mostly ignored. Apparently, good art takes time, and there's certainly more to Bruce Hornsby's talents than he's given credit for. That's just the way it is.