Justin Hayward Returns with Spirits of the Western Sky
by Peter Roche
Justin Hayward’s had many milestones in his fifty year career. The prolific singer-songwriter sold over 60 million albums and notched a handful of unforgettable hits with legendary rockers The Moody Blues, including “Question,” “Tuesday Afternoon,” and “Your Wildest Dreams.” He also sang on Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds in 1978 and issued a string of acclaimed solo projects from 1977-1985 without wandering too far from the Moodys, who remain a premier live touring act.
Now the iconic voice behind “Nights in White Satin” is back with his first disc in over fifteen years, Spirits of the Western Sky.
Featuring lush orchestration by Academy Award-winning composer Anne Dudley and the songwriting chops fans have come to expect of Hayward, Spirits finds the Wilshire, England native channeling his creative muse vis-à-vis romantic Genoa, Italy and sunny Nashville, Tennessee. A decade in the making, Spirits is the first true testament of what’s been on Hayward’s mind since View from the Hill (1996), a pastiche of night birds and skylarks, gardens and groves—a musical postcard of summer haze and still shadows lingering beneath breeze-brushed trees.
Thematically, Spirits is a reflective rather than nostalgic album, a celebration of rebirth, love, and forgiveness from a sexagenarian singer who’s been there, done that. At least half the cuts have the Moody balladeer taking stock of intimate relationships, reveling in the beauty of interpersonal connections that click and reexamining ones that don’t. Hayward’s narrators keep their chins up and hearts open even when something’s amiss. Throughout, Hayward maintains a cheery optimism and warm, “we’ll overcome” determination that sees his lovelorn characters through every obstacle—or at least tides them over until the cosmic tumblers click into place, sending good fortune their way.
Easy-listening opener “In Your Blues Eyes” is a valentine ornamented with bright chords, gently loping drums, swirling strings, and one of Hayward’s tasteful electric guitar solos. The wistful “One Day, Someday” bounces over a hiccupping acoustic riff and triggered drums, gaining altitude courtesy a few decorative keyboard swells and Hayward’s patent vocal harmonies. The song finds his repentant, “repeatedly defeated” narrator trying to reconcile with an aggrieved paramour, contenting himself with “the music keeping [him] sane” until past sins are forgiven.
“We put our faith in God and Man, and one of them betrays us every chance he can,” he croons.
Yet Hayward allows his Romeos and Lotharios to believe tomorrow things will change and that past wrongs will be righted. He doesn’t entertain despair. “I’m still here, still rollin’ on, trying to get I love you into every song,” he confesses.
The cinematic, slow-build title cut clings to love as an ideal—a “beautiful adventure” worth taking even when circumstances (here, a couple contemplating “what might have been”) suggest otherwise. Acoustic guitars and electric piano create a lulling rhythm as artificial harmonics cascade between the chords and timpani punctuates the verses. Hayward’s lead guitar tone hasn’t changed much from his Songwriter and Night Flight days. His attack is clean, his solos uncluttered excursions of forlorn midrange that serve the song rather than call attention to themselves. Sister track “The Eastern Sun” (our personal favorite) is a lovely finger-style guitar study wherein Hayward delves into “life’s mercy” while Dudley’s violins and cello softly billow. It’s easily the most poetic lyric on the album, a Walden guidebook of picturesque meadows and streams juxtaposed by the sounds of children at play and his own earnest, let me be plea to a seemingly noncommittal partner. It’s also Hayward’s most impassioned delivery; despite the singer’s heavenly hums, his voice cracks imaging a world “with no sorrow and no shame.”