Nearly 47 years have passed since Don McLean released American Pie.
An epic lyric with an earworm chorus about "the day the music died," it swirled God, Satan, James Dean, the Beatles, football, Chevys and, above all, music into a harmonious chaos. It’s was poetic, sublime, a kaleidoscope of literary references and youthful angst. At some level, it spoke to and for a generation as few songs ever have.
And now? At age 72, after an eight-year hiatus from the recording studio, McLean offers a new album, Botanical Gardens (out Friday). As its title suggests, the storms of American Pie have given way to a more pastoral world, nourished by insights that usually come with time.
From the title song, a reverie on whether love may wait just around the next corner, to an unexpected encounter with an old flame on A Total Eclipse of the Sun, whether set to a honky-tonk shuffle on I’ve Cried All The Tears That I Have or a carefree twirl on Rock 'n’ Roll Your Baby, every note is about romance.
“I like beautiful music,” McLean explains without apology. “I always loved the bel canto way of singing. I was more interested in Marty Robbins, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley than the Rolling Stones. That’s why I started to write songs. When I was 19 or 20, I was pretty happy to be another folk singer trying to get a job. The songs I sang then came close to what I wanted to say. So I decided to write new songs that said exactly what I wanted to say.”
Even when that led him into a maze as complex as the eight-minute-long American Pie, McLean built his songs around melodies he could bring to life through empathetic vocals. Thus, while many of his peers emulated Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger or found inspiration in raw folk or blues, he followed a more tuneful muse.
In McLean’s estimation, those rougher influences that permeated post-'60s rock had an unfortunate effect on the art of songwriting.
“It’s dead,” he insists. “It’s finished. Look at the lyrics that are on the radio. Compare them to The Everly Brothers singing Devoted To You or Elvis Presley singing I Want You, I Need You, I Love You. Now it’s ‘I want to tie you up and rape you.’ The idea of romance has died, even though a romantic notion of some kind is in the heart of every great song.”
It's not just the lyrics that have gone downhill; McLean believes that musical composition has also become stagnant.
“On that old TV show Name That Tune, people would be able to name a song in four notes," he says. "I challenge anybody to name any of these songs I hear on the radio (today) in four notes. It’s usually the same note being repeated. I don’t think those old-fashioned songs will ever come back.”
Why not? “We don’t believe in anything anymore,” McLean suggests. “We don’t believe in God. We don’t believe in religion. We don’t believe in our leaders. We don’t believe in so many things we believed in in the '50s and '60s. We won wars back then by believing in God, by believing that our enemies were godless barbarians. Money is the only thing that matters.”
Fortunately, McLean insists that money was never his motivation, which at this stage frees him to write as he wishes.
“Now that I’m older, I think about how precious were many of the things I took for granted: the way I grew up, my parents, the girls I knew, friends I’ve had, places I’ve been," he explains. "This album comes from that. It’s for people who have loved someone and who want to be moved again.”