In the aftermath of The Eagles’ break-up, each individual member was able to go their separate ways and try to cut it in the music industry as a solo act. Joe Walsh was a seasoned vet, having albums with the James Gang and a solo career prior to joining the Eagles in 1976. Glenn Frey and Don Felder were able to release singles such as “The Heat is On” and “Heavy Metal,” respectively. None of the other Eagles, however, were able to hold a candle to their unofficial lead bird.
Don Henley was the unquestioned creative force behind a good chunk of the Eagles’ greatest hits. A quick look at his post-Eagles career all but confirms this, as Henley was far and away the most successful out of all of his former bandmates. Of all the songwriters to come out of the talent pool that was The Eagles, Henley was the hit-maker.
Henley released his first solo effort in 1982 entitled I Can’t Stand Still. The album was a success and went gold on the back of the top 5 hit single “Dirty Laundry,” which peaked at number 3 on the charts. It was a great start to Henley’s second career, but had hints of his former band in the DNA of a lot of the tracks. In the Fall of 1984, Don Henley released his follow up, Building The Perfect Beast. This sophomore effort would be sure to lay any qualms about his creative prowess to rest.
If I had to use one word to describe Beast, it would be “summer.” The entire album is drenched in sunshine from top to bottom, and almost every track on here can transport you to different parts of summer. A certain mix of melancholy and sweetness graces the album and brings you back to the long days and warm nights of youth. It goes without saying, Building The Perfect Beast is summer incarnate.
A lot of this has to do with the way each song is structured. The production quality has what I like to refer to as “80’s haze,” as songs such as “Sunset Grill” have very heavily layered synths, acting as kind of a rainforest canopy and trapping the sound. It is hard to explain but listen to that song in particular and you will see what I mean. It is a comparable phenomenon present in other 80’s songs like Berlin’s 1986 Top Gun soundtrack hit “Take My Breath Away.” The hazy synths will almost make your speakers seem like they are dripping with dew.
With the humidity of 80’s haze present on some of the tracks, others take a more scaled down approach, production wise. Some of the songs featured on Beast are very light and poppy boppers that feel like a day at the beach. Others have very deep meanings and take a darker turn, while still keeping their sun-soaked vibe. They still sound like summer, but perhaps in more of a “sunset drive down the beach, alone with your thoughts” type of feeling (what, don’t we all have those?).
This dichotomy makes for a very engaging and dynamic album. The jump in maturity, both in songwriting and production quality, gives Henley and Beast all they need to make the perfect summer driving album. These songs have a nostalgic tinge to them, even if you’ve never heard them before. Speaking of the songs, let’s get into the meat of the album, shall we?
Of the 11 songs on Building The Perfect Beast, 7 are noteworthy (and we will discuss all 7 in detail).
The album kicks off with the classic “Boys of Summer.” The vibe of the entire album is immediately cemented with this track: catchy hooks that hide meaningful lyrics. The song feels hallow, in the best way possible. Every time I listen to “Boys of Summer” I feel as though my summer is coming to a close and the pain of nostalgia slowly seeps in (I promise it’s a good feeling). Anytime a song can evoke an emotion as deep as that, you have to give credit to its crafter.
Directly following “Boys of Summer” is the ode to the heartbroken, “You Can’t Make Love.” Henley opines that you can create almost anything to give to the one you love, except love itself. The song sounds as if Henley is retroactively warning himself against the sentiment, something anyone once in a relationship can attest to. You often realize your mistakes after it is too late, and the song becomes relatable to anyone who has ever loved and lost. As far as how the song is structured, a major key signature woven between desperate lyrics, makes this a textbook example of the album’s dichotomous relationship between words and music.
A few tracks down the dial is “Not Enough Love In The World.” Very similar to “You Can’t Make Love,” “Not Enough Love In The World” is a bittersweet swan song to a now former lover, as Henley realizes he doesn’t have what it takes to keep his significant other happy and that they’ve drifted apart because of the throes of success and jealousy; he knows he still loves her but has to let her go. Again, this entire message is layered over an almost cavity-inducing, bubblegum-pop composition and the juxtaposition of the two makes for a great midway point of the album.
Side 2 of the vinyl is where the album goes from great to spectacular, and it all starts with “All She Wants To Do Is Dance.” The song is a social commentary about America’s “reckless” foreign policy in the 70’s and 80’s, but you can hardly tell with the saccharine major key signature and aforementioned 80’s haze. The track is a politically charged rant disguised as a dance tune, and brilliantly so. I can’t help but bop along to “Dance” while simultaneously feeling the heat from Henley’s comments and while I don’t whole-heartedly agree with the message, I appreciate the process.
The single track on the album that exemplifies the vibe of “late summer days,” at least musically, is the grandiose “Sunset Grill.” A six and a half minute epic, “Sunset Grill” has the haze in spades. What separates this track from some of the others though, is that it may be the reverse of its other brothers found on the album. “Sunset Grill” sounds like it is about something much more sinister, thanks to the brooding synthesizers, but really it is about exactly what you hear: a restaurant in Los Angeles where the owner knows everyone’s name.
Sandwiched in between what may be two of my favorite Don Henley songs is the almost entirely missable “Driving With Your Eyes Closed.” I can’t make heads or tails of the message in this one, but it could possibly be about going through life purposefully ignorant of all the peril around you (something I can sheepishly relate to). Regardless, the synths and crunching guitar in the background coupled with Henley’s near falsetto vocals makes this a fun break from the sun soaked vibes of the rest of the songs, if only for a brief, fleeting moment.
Every song I have already mentioned holds a special meaning, but the song on here I absolutely adore the most is the final track on Building The Perfect Beast: “Land of the Living.” If you can only listen to one song off of this album, make sure it is this one. “Land of the Living” is beautifully bittersweet and evokes a cocktail of emotions in me every time I hear it. Melancholy, nostalgia, longing, they’re all present in the 3 and a half minute run time. The composition is a C major/A minor switch between chorus and verse, respectively, and it really meshes well with the lyrics: things happen in this world that we cannot control, but you keep me sane and I want to stay with you forever. The feel of the song suggests he can’t, in fact, stay in the land of the living with her, and thus this song is his last coping mechanism before moving on. The track fades out on the strength of its keyboard/bass riff and the album comes to a close; an almost too perfect to describe ending to a great album.
As far as low-lights go, this album has a few; Beast is not a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination. “Man With A Mission” is a jarring selection to be placed after the first two tracks of the album, and its follow-up “You’re Not Drinking Enough” isn’t enough to get the taste out of our mouths. They aren’t terrible songs, they just don’t mesh with the overarching theme of the album.
“A Month of Sundays” acts as sort of a long intro that bleeds into “Sunset Grill” but I usually skip over it. The song is a bit too slow for my tastes, as it is a piano interlude and never really gets off the ground.
These songs are interspersed enough throughout the album so as to make it hard to just drop the needle, but if necessary I can gut through these songs to get to the good stuff. Some of these songs are THAT worth it.
Building the Perfect Beast was a huge success in the mid-80’s, going triple platinum and reaching top 15 status on the Billboard Charts. Critics and fans alike lauded the album for its composition and quality of songwriting, as Don Henley finally emerged from the shadows of his former band mates.
Henley waited almost five years to release his next studio effort. The End of The Innocence was released in 1989 and although it was a critical and commercial success, it didn’t have the same impact Beast did, musically speaking. Innocence may have the better sales numbers (6 million), but in my opinion, Beast was the better album.
Any opportunity I get to listen to Building The Perfect Beast, I relish it. It is one of the few albums I don’t take for granted (partly because the CD of it I have in my car doesn’t play anymore). The album transports me, mentally and emotionally, to a simultaneously happy and longing state. Popping that CD into the slot takes me away, and I keep coming back for more. If you have the means, pick this album up and give it a listen. And if you ever feel the need to experience summer in 42 minutes, Don Henley has your back.
Next Album: Dirt by Alice In Chains