Those critics who regarded The Doors’ third album Waiting for the Sun as an extreme disappointment, unleashed even more venom at their fourth, and understandably so. For a band who once took you to the Dionysian depths of Hades, to suddenly start making overtly commercial pop music must have seemed like an act of treason, not to mention something of a musical embarrassment. Because The Soft Parade was quite unlike anything they had done before. One Rolling Stone critic described it thus: “The Soft Parade is worse than infuriating… [it] represents a clear and present decline in musicianship”. Which gives one an estimation of how much they had fallen from the esteem of the ‘rocknoscenti’, as if confirming that the group were fast running out of ideas, and heading into irrelevance, at least as far as the counter-culture was concerned. The fact that Jim Morrison began to increasingly see himself as a poet first, and pop star second certainly didn’t help matters any. Jim’s (infamous) drinking and heavy drug intake wasn’t improving the situation either, which probably goes some way to explain what they ended up with here; an album which hovers halfway between genius and mediocrity.
Album opener “Tell All the People” is not a bad song per se, but Morrison sounds like he’s just not into it. The decision to bring in a brass section may also have had something to do with it, convincing many critics in the process that the band had simply lost its way. And I can’t blame them for feeling that.
“Touch Me” is the most well-known song off the album, and the most popular. It’s big, bold and brassy, in a Blood, Sweat and Tears kind of way. Written by guitarist Robby Krieger (who also wrote the previous track), it is so un-Doors-like it’s a miracle that Morrison even agreed to sing it in the first place. Still, it’s a pretty damn fine tune, no matter how Jim might have felt, and one which I’m sure many a rock band today would gladly donate a few of their vital organs to medical science if it meant writing a song even half as good this.
“Shaman’s Blues” is a bit more like it, but ultimately remains a relatively lightweight composition when compared with their earlier material. It’s a pleasant and wistful distraction, but little else. On “Do It” The Doors attempt to recapture some of their old magic, and they almost succeed. However things degenerate into seeming parody, with the carousal-like “Easy Ride”, as if the band were auditioning for The Grand Ole Opry. Hearing this it’s no small wonder that some critics were having cadenzas. And yet just when you’re about to give up on the LP, “Wild Child” comes marching in and all hope is restored, albeit briefly. It’s a classic song, and no doubt one quite close to Morrison’s own heart, considering his interest and genuine concern for the plight of the American Indians. Although with lyrics such as “Not your mother’s or your Father’s child” there is likely some autobiographical references included. Krieger’s “Runnin’ Blue” has the group running back to the Ole Opry, and is well below their usual standards, no matter how fun or entertaining it is.
“Wishful Sinful” was released as a single, and is another decent composition by Krieger, where everyone plays their parts flawlessly, especially bass extraordinaire Harvey Brooks, but like so much of this album, it suffers from too much extraneous orchestration.
Fortunately the record closes on a high note, with the multi-part suite of the title track. The Doors were no strangers when it came to epics, and “The Soft Parade” is no exception. It’s certainly ambitious, as well as experimental, and when I first heard it many years ago, I almost had trouble believing it was the same group. The track is well-arranged, and masterfully recorded, but can also seem a touch self-conscious in places. However Morrison was obviously proud of it as it was one of the few songs from the LP which he was happy to perform on television (the band’s performance of the suite on PBS is particularly impressive). One thing’s for sure; “The Soft Parade” undoubtedly keeps you guessing.
While the album is by no means a masterpiece, nor is it a complete and utter disaster (far from it, in fact). Perhaps a portion of the blame should be directed at Paul A. Rothchild, who had produced all their previous records, and who in this instance was looking for a more refined and state of the art sound, insisting on lush orchestral arrangements, along with multiple takes, taxing the patience of the band in the process (drummer John Densmore actually stormed out at one point, only to return the next day). And as for Jim’s excesses, maybe it was simply his way of saying ‘hey guys, all I really wanna do is write poetry and get wasted’.
Basically The Doors were always at their best when lurking in the shadows, hanging out in all those dark spaces of the human psyche. Yes, there are a few moments of depth here and there, but nothing quite so powerfully hypnotic or disturbing as “Break on Through” or “When the Music’s Over”. Yet the fact that the group had such a short career, virtually guarantees that any album, no matter how inconsistent, must inevitably be considered essential, but only after you’ve heard their first two LPs.
As a post script, the 40th Anniversary edition is interesting in that the entire album was remixed (for all the Anoraks out there), and includes several previously unreleased bonus tracks that are a must have for any loyal follower or fellow tragic.