The Soft Parade, the fourth of The Doors' six classic studio albums, is often considered the least successful. However, the newly mixed and mastered 40th anniversary reissue of all six records is an excellent occasion to revisit the experiments that resulted in the band's uneven but interesting 1969 effort.
The album included pop-oriented arrangements that carried the Doors far from their stripped-down, bluesy roots, with some questionable results. Internal divisions, meanwhile – partly caused by Jim Morrison's excessive drinking – made the recording process slow and difficult. Nevertheless the album produced a number of classic songs, including "Touch Me," "Wild Child," and the nearly ten-minute title suite that had counterculture kids screaming along with Morrison, "You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!!!"
In "Tell All the People" and "Touch Me" the new production makes the individual horn parts burst through the mix with such clarity that the songs become more like sophisticated Chicago (the band) arrangements, or post-swing tunes, and less like the cheesy pop that some critics likened them to when the album came out. Whether you consider this an improvement may depend on what you originally liked or didn't like about the songs. If the rethinking of those two recordings (by original Doors engineer Bruce Botnick) still doesn't grab you, you may take comfort in revisiting the much more Doors-like "Shaman's Blues," which has always been one of my favorite Doors songs. The new mix keeps the grim intensity while giving a new separation to the underlying keyboard parts.
"Do It" was mostly forgettable then, and it remains so; perhaps significantly, it's the only song on the album credited to both Morrison and Robbie Krieger. Everything else was written by one or the other. (Prior to this album, the band members were in the habit of giving one another collective songwriting credit.) Though at the time of this recording they weren't working together quite so smoothly, the singer and the guitarist retained their capacities for inspiration. Morrison's "Wild Child" and Kreiger's ballad "Wishful Sinful" ably represent the band's grungy and romantic sides. (The English horn solo on the latter comes through sweetly sparkling in the new mix.)
"Runnin' Blue" might be the weirdest song ever recorded by the band, with Kreiger thinly hollering the bluegrass chorus and the horn players going crazy on the jazzy break. With its density and abandon, the song gains a great deal from the new mix. By contrast, no added sound clarity can make the "Soft Parade" suite itself more than an inconsistent mix of simple, catchy musical bits and Morrison's pretend poetry.
The bonus tracks are worth having, though the liner notes fail to give any background on them. There's the underrated "Who Scared You;" two versions (in different keys and arrangements) of the chantlike "Whiskey, Mystics and Men," the second of which I particularly like; the goofy, good-natured, mostly instrumental rhythm-and-blues jam "Push Push" (basically a rewrite of "Twist and Shout"); and a previously unreleased, slightly looser take of "Touch Me," during the introduction of which the bass and guitar play a slightly different rhythm, for those of you keeping track of such things.
The Doors always had a slightly different rhythm from everyone else. Pretentious, flawed, and dominated by a self-destructive front man, they were and still are one of rock's most original and influential groups, and The Soft Parade, imperfect as it is, remains an essential disc for Doors fans.