Bob Sarlin

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[Time] has proved Laura Nyro to be one of the best of the songpoets. (p. 122)

Of all the songwriters we have, she is the one who has shown herself capable of producing an endless stream of single hits, while at the same time moving off in musical directions that others have either given up on or failed to notice. She has faced up to the gamble of commerciality and prevailed; her music has consistently gone into modes of rock and songpoetry that no one else has either the ability or the will to explore.

No matter where her music takes her, New York with its dirt and its funk and its people is central to her work. She is like a lover to the city—which seems a miracle at a time when many hold the city a destructive force. But as an artist, Nyro perceives and captures something of the city's humanity and its complicated joys and emotions. Her songs say sweet things about it, without romanticizing its ugliness or anger. (pp. 122-23)

[Nyro's first album, Laura Nyro: More Than a New Discovery,] contained some of the freshest pop songs and performances to be released since the Beatles crashed the American scene in 1964. Bob Dylan might be out there thrashing his own soul and those of his contemporaries, and the Beatles might be lost in a haze of pot smoke and circus imagery, but Laura Nyro proved herself a popular song-writer in the manner of the early rock follow-up writers. She turned out an album of slick, strong pop singles, one after another. (p. 124)

She has taught her audience to accept her for what she is, which seems to be something between a saint and a streetwalker. She is one of the few writers who can write a religious number that has the sensuality of a sexual overture. She has somehow detected the sensuality in religious fantasy and has been able to translate that perception in musical terms.

Although the first album does not have many of the later, more elaborate, songs, it does give an indication of Nyro's ability as both a performer and a writer. Even though surrounded by inappropriate and often schmaltzy arrangements, and apparently prevented from presenting her music with all its rhythmic eccentricities, Laura shines through with songs like "Wedding Bell Blues" and "And When I Die." Although there is much lyrical sophistication here, these songs do not compare with her subsequent intensity or experimentation. (pp. 124-25)

There is not a clunker on Laura Nyro: More Than a New Discovery. Yet it must be said that none of the songs cut very deep. They are calculatedly commercial packages…. (p. 125)

[Eli and the Thirteenth Confession] is a monument in song-poetry, along with [Van Morrison's] Astral Weeks and Dylan's Highway 61 and Joni Mitchell's Blue.

Again, there are no clunkers, but this time there are a new depth and an entirely original feeling to the whole affair. (p. 126)

What makes Nyro the unique songpoet she is is an ability to draw upon both her street smarts and her extensive fantasy life, which is most likely a reaction to her involvement with urban existence.

Another aspect of her work worth noting is a marked spiritual inclination, which fused with her fantasies and her feelings about poetry and the stress of urban life to produce what one critic has called her "religio-erotic" songs. She told the same interviewer that she once considered becoming a nun but gave up the idea, and it is clear that she intends the confusion...

(This entire section contains 1391 words.)

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of religious and sexual imagery that fills her songs, especially those onEli. (pp. 126-27)

Although there are those who have written and spoken of Eli as a "concept" album, comparable in its own way to Sergeant Pepper and similar attempts at extended song-making, I believe that this is an after thought. The two sides are marked Part I and Part II, but one would have to stretch one's critical imagination quite a way to find the real difference between them. Unlike Astral Weeks, the album does not have a consistent theme or even design. The songs, in fact, sound similar…. (p. 127)

There is no musical style of the last twenty years, from bossa nova to cool jazz, from soul to folk-rock, from screamer rock to blues dirge, that is absent [on this album]. Yet it rarely seems jumbled, and everything fits. (p. 129)

Nyro proves up to dealing with sophisticated and detailed concepts within the context of modern rock. She offers a pleasant choice. You can listen to hear her view of the world, or you can kick off your shoes and dance…. (p. 130)

The swinging end to an almost perfect album, a shout of love and another rocking dance tune, is "The Confession." This song is about the miracle of love, about becoming a virgin once again…. She leaves us with a message, and Lord knows, Laura is not a message singer. The word is "Love is surely gospel," and the confession is complete. (p. 131)

After Eli, with its fine combination of strong lyrics, widely varied rhythms and strong orchestrations, Nyro moved into a new and chancy realm. She began to try out ballads and to experiment with simpler, more direct means of performance. Her next album, New York Tendaberry, was the result of this experimentation, with all its joys and flaws.

New York Tendaberry, released in late 1969, is, on the surface, a much more subdued offering than its predecessors, but this is really not the case. The lack of orchestration gives the impression, at first, of naiveté, but as one sits and listens, it comes clear that while Nyro has abandoned the symphonic aspects of her work, she has moved into new areas in her writing. The songs are actually more complex, lyrically and musically ambiguous, blessed with fresh ideas but cursed with false starts. The total sound is leaner, but the songs themselves are richer in notion, and the performances are way above the usual level of modern singer/songwriters.

The idea, apparently, was to combine balladry, rock-and-roll and new loose forms of jazz and come up with an entirely new popular music. The attempt fails, but along the way the writer produces moments of sound and emotion unrivaled by her contemporaries. The music winds down throughout, and the words stretch out into long howls of emotion with few coherent statements. For all the rambling and the overextension, when Nyro begins a well-constructed tune—and there are a few here—there are a new clarity and a new intimacy to her work. (pp. 132-33)

The final impression one gets from New York Tendaberry is of a writer gradually reaching maturity and slowly finding self-discipline, overcoming the problems of too-early success. After all, who's going to be the one to tell Laura Nyro when she is being musically self-indulgent, or that a ten-second fade-out can sometimes be more effective than thirty repetitive seconds? This album is a mirror of the problem, self-indulgent and sloppy, but mixed in are moments of imagination and inventiveness. (p. 133)

Christmas and the Beads of Sweat takes Nyro one step further into the future of songpoetry…. [This album could] be considered one extended extraordinary song. (p. 134)

Although Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is the result of a natural evolution in Nyro's work, many of her listeners seemed to feel that this was but one more step in the process of an artist killing her work with self-indulgence. The absence of single possibilities, and the introverted nature of much of the song writing on Christmas could, I suppose, support some sort of case for Nyro having withdrawn from the mainstream of pop music, but to me it is simply a case of someone having exhausted a form and moving forward. (p. 135)

If there must be a long wait between Laura Nyro albums, and if these albums are, at first, difficult to comprehend and appreciate, I, for one, will be patient. This young woman has given much to rock, but she is still very young and will be with us for many music-filled years to come. (p. 136)

Bob Sarlin, "Laura Nyro—The City Songpoet," in his Turn It Up! (I Can't Hear the Words): The Best of the New Singer/Songwriters (copyright © 1973, by Robert Sarlin; reprinted by permission of the author), Simon & Schuster, 1974, pp. 122-36.


Allan Jones


Allan Jones