Sunday, June 2, 2013

Saving The Best For Last: Tom Lehrer That Was The Year That Was Still Kills!

The Good: Funny, Well-sung, Good voice, Interesting interstitials, Good musical moments
The Bad: Some references are dated.
The Basics: Perhaps a perfect humor album That Was The Year That Was resonates even forty years later.

As I reach my final review in the collection of the works of musical comedian Tom Lehrer, I find myself pleased at the irony. It was the album That Was The Year That Was that first led me to Tom Lehrer. I was given this album originally as a bootlegged cassette from the first person I fell in love with and I still have that somewhere in a shoebox. I have long since upgraded to the legitimate compact disc and I find myself listening to this album whenever I want to smile.

The truth is, despite the fact that I have nostalgic ties to it, That Was The Year That Was is easily one of the most enduring albums of musical comedy since comedy was first recorded and sold on LPs. It was originally released in 1965 and the humor is (mostly) still as fresh today as it was when it was originally recorded and released. In truth, the reason this album can survive as long as it has, despite having some very specific references to the time period, is that Tom Lehrer has a singular wit. Hell, he has wit, which puts him ahead of the vast number of supposed comedians to come down the pike since!

With fourteen tracks, clocking in at 37:10, That Was The Year That Was is certainly a reflection of the talent and genius of mathematician turned performance artist Tom Lehrer. He wrote all of the songs and performs the piano for each track. Strangely, this is one of the few albums he does not take a production credit on. Still, he performs introductions for each song on the album, acting as a little bit of standup between each track.

The thing is, That Was The Year That Was is arguably the most original full album Lehrer ever released and it was his last complete one. The other albums he released, he recorded as studio versions and then later as live performances. That Was The Year That Was was recorded live and the crowd noises in the background laugh at the appropriate moments and applaud, giving the listener the feeling of being a part of that audience.

Lehrer's genius starts with the lyrics and on That Was The Year That Was he sings about popular culture ("The Folk Song Army"), military build-up ("Send The Marines"), and the state of education in the United States ("New Math"). Lehrer is fearlessly satirical with he sings, "Oh, the Protestants hat the Catholics, / And the Catholics hate the Protestants, / And the Hindus hate the Muslims / And ev'rybody hates the Jews. / But during National Brotherhood Week . . .It's National Ev'ryone-smile-at-one-another-hood Week, / Be nice to people who / Are inferior to you. / It's only for a week . . ." ("National Brotherhood Week"). Lehrer predates political correctness and his ability to address interethnic conflict frankly is admirable. As a product of one of the most turbulent times in American History it is refreshing to hear that someone tried to make light of it while educating listeners to the dangers of hatred.

In addition to dealing with the problems in interethnic relations in the 1960s, Lehrer is unabashedly liberal in his views on disarmament. Seeing the dangers of nuclear proliferation, he managed to make a surprisingly timeless song out of things like brinkmanship. He calls the world leaders out with lines like, "Sleep, baby, sleep, in peace may you slumber, / No danger lurks, your sleep to encumber. / We've got the missiles, peace to determine, / And one of the fingers on the button will be German" ("MLF Lullaby"). He seems quite in tune with the concept of the dangers of nuclear war as well on the song "So Long Mom (A Song For World War III)."

It is not all war and pacifism songs, though. In fact, one of the funniest songs resonates today because it is about the value of pornography. Lehrer makes the fight over erotica humorous when he sings, "Stories of tortures / Used by debauchers, / Lurid, licentious, and vile / Make me smile. / Novels that pander / To my taste for candor / Give me a pleasure sublime . . . When correctly viewed, / Ev'rything is lewd" ("Smut"). That type of humor makes the album rather adult, though the language is perfectly clean on the tracks.

The thing is, in addition to writing, Lehrer has the ability to sing. He takes on complex mathematics on "New Math" and the truth is, he does not miss a beat, he does not mumble throughout the entire song and considering the strings of numbers he goes through, this is impressive. Moreover, he stretches his range by going higher and lower on various tracks, all the while being both articulate and funny.

The tunes on That Was The Year That Was are all piano pieces and while they are not the most complex in the world, they are sophisticated enough that they sound good when repeated for years and years on end and I know I couldn't play them. In truth, no one is buying this album for its musical sophistication; they will seek it out for the humor and that remains golden.

There are a few references that Lehrer makes that might take a little research, like referencing Massachusetts as having three Senators, but strangely the album does not seem crippled by being dated. Instead, this is humor that manages to hold up.

As a fan of Tom Lehrer's works, I would be remiss in simply recommending this disc when there is the definitive boxed set of Lehrer's works. That is The Remains Of Tom Lehrer - reviewed here! - and it includes this album and the rest of his works in one place, making it an even better deal! Indeed, I recommend that instead of buying this as a separate album. It is a better use of the medium, mostly because this is a fairly short album.

Regardless of that, this is an intensely funny album which will appeal to anyone who likes to laugh, even those who did not live through the 1960s (like me!).

The best track is "So Long Mom (A Song For World War III)," and while none of the songs are bad, I do occasionally skip over "New Math."

For other works by Tom Lehrer, please check out my reviews of:
Songs And More Songs By Tom Lehrer
Tom Lehrer Revisited
An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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