It's a schizophrenic album, but it's ultimately a great one that holds a unique place in their history.
As I say above, Cousins made a promise to be more collaborative. He kept his word. Every other band member has, at very least, one song that they contributed mightily to the creation of.
As I also say above, that's not always a good thing. "Sad Young Man" by Coombes, and "It's Just Love" by Lambert are perfectly competent rock songs with very lean and strong playing. Placed second and third on the album, they really derail it. They don't fit the feel of the rest of it, but don't provide a helpful distraction either. They're conceptually completely different. They seem like outtakes from another session.
Outside of that (ironically - one uses that word a lot when talking about Strawbs), it's the least compromising record of their career.
The opening suite, "Autumn," is a John Hawken tour-de-force, from the opening synth groove that allegedly got some R&B play (it'd be a great hip-hop sample!) to the lovely piano flourishes that bedeck "The Winter Long," one of those great folkie/churchy Cousins melodies that never fail to uplift. The multi-part prog epic would become a recurring style for the next several years.
After the obligatory 'band member' songs, however, it heads in a somewhat darker direction.
Cousins' newest love, a young lady named Sara Charles, was the main inspiration, the 'heroine' of the title (NOT a drug reference, Cousins was and is quick to assure). Judging by the lyrics, all was not hunky dory in paradise.
I think it's safe to say, that with the possible exception of Robert Wyatt and maybe Peter Hammill, no prog artist has ever used a bed of mellotron and synths in the service of such confessional and personal work. Despite the fact that it is indeed a decidedly progressive album (Rolling Stone named it #44 on their all-time progressive top 50) its spiritual cousins (hah! Pun intended!) are, rather than Yes, ELP, or even other Strawbs albums, things like Plastic Ono Band, Big Star 3rd, or (to use a folkier reference point) Joni Mitchell's Blue
. As a friend who is now a music supervisor by profession once said, "you can hear the blood dripping on that one."
The single was their last (minor) hit in the UK. Not as bleak as the remainder of the album, but tinged with sadness. His new love is also the "young magician" in this song. The unsuccessful 'comedian' is of course Cousins himself:
The bonus tracks on the reissue are probably the least interesting of any of the A&M albums. The best way to hear the album is to listen to side two by itself, in one sitting, from start to finish.
The title track is a heady mix - the return of the electric banjo, and some remarkably skillful and dramatic mellotron playing, particularly impressive as Hawken was unfamiliar with the instrument previous to its recording.
"Midnight Sun" is the Cronk co-write. This is the beginnings of the Cousins/Cronk team, which would shortly become very common. I'm assuming Cronk wrote the music and Cousins the lyrics, as it seems like another deep dive into his psyche. "The dark night sheds no light/it merely serves a warning," sings Cousins. For a man in love, he seems to be in a rather dark place. "I have loved, I have lost" is another key line. Is he celebrating having loved, or obsessed by the possibility, once again, of loss? The answer is, of course, both.
The darkness really takes over on "Round and Round," however. It's a remarkable song for a band that a mere couple years previous was acoustic-based and given to pastoralism. Behind a bleak electronic landscape that is more Kraftwerk or Suicide than it is Yes or ELP, Cousins waxes cynical about the failure of the hippie revolution, with a pessimistic view of both his own, and the world's future. No one is spared, least of all himself:
Lambert also composed the ending "Heroine's Theme," another powerful Strawbs riff that grows out of Cousins' plea "Lay a Little Light on Me." Once again, I hear a rather considerable Beatles influence in it, right down to the Lennonesque pleading vocals and the backwards tracks at the end (the refrain of "Shine on Silver Sun" backwards). Again, one of his better singing performances.
If Cousins was feeling like the light was breaking through given a more stable band situation, it surely doesn't show. The light would reemerge soon enough, but the band was irrevocably changed. Canada and the US, where they'd become underground heroes rather than declining hitmakers, would become the focus for the next several years.