With his label established in 1974 but not graced by George until 1976, Harrison’s Dark Horse years should have been a bounty of unfettered Harrisongs. But as his health, outlook, business arrangements and ultimately his interest was seen to stutter, the period was mostly regarded as a continuation of the downward path Harrison’s work had taken after 1970’s All Things Must Pass. And the consistency of his lyrical concerns?romantic/spiritual love, the search for enlightenment, snipes at the modern world’s shortcomings?palled even for avid Beatlenuts amid less-than-blue-chip musical settings. Efforts to reassess the period following his death in 2001 were foiled until now by the unavailability of the albums. Now they’re back. The Dark Horse Years still resists revelatory critical repositioning, but the set is welcome?and strangely comforting.
Thirty Three And 1/3 (1976) appeared in the wake of the “My Sweet Lord”/”He’s So Fine”court case, where Harrison was found guilty of unconscious plagiarism. His musical response?”This Song”?contained a wry humour masking the blow to his confidence and inspiration; the rest of this oddly ordinary album, however, conveyed it all too clearly.
George Harrison (1979) was a freshly enthused, minor treat?a fulsome acoustic rocker replete with sunshine melodies and gorgeous slide guitar. “Blow Away” perfectly conveys the breezy change of mood required to banish his sporadic blues, “Soft-Hearted Hana”jazzily details his experiences with magic mushrooms, and the bitter White Album reject “Not Guilty”is buffed into modest splendour.
Somewhere In England (1981) was another slump, however. Rejected in its original form by distributors Warners, then later a hit in the wake of Lennon’s assassination and George’s hastily adjusted tribute, “All Those Years Ago”, the best tracks were probably a pair of old Hoagy Carmichael songs, which says it all. Gone Troppo (1982) was a return to form of sorts?amiable, light-hearted music made by a bunch of mates with nothing to prove?but by now George had lost interest in promotion, and the album was barely noticed.
For five years Harrison diversified?mainly into films and gardening?then unexpectedly exploded back onto the charts with a hit single, James Ray’s “Got My Mind Set On You”, and the fabulous album Cloud Nine (1987) . Producer Jeff Lynne was probably what George needed all along; a trusted musical pal who could record his voice properly and tidy things up at the back. Cloud Nine brought out the best in both men.
And that?aside from a pair of late-’80s Wilbury albums (still absent), the record of his short Japanese tour in 1991, Live In Japan , and the posthumous Brainwashed (2002)?was that. Business problems, Beatles Anthology duties, illness and a desire to be as free from hassle as possible precluded any serious return to the music world in his lifetime. Taken as a body of work, The Dark Horse Years remains largely second division Harrison with the occasional contender for promotion, but this music is now inevitably fragrant with poignancy and, for many, that will be enough.