There are hardly any albums whose covers better represent their music than “Supertramp.” The music here is dark, a bit spooky, ethereal and otherworldly, not unlike that cover– just look at it! What is that half man, half flower thing? Whatever it is, it’s creepy. An enigmatic debut, this one. Most of that is due to the effect the songs have on the listener. It’s unclear if that dark, ethereal mood was intentional or a by-product of bad production or whatever, but it makes the music quite difficult to make an impression. Each of the songs has a definite melody, hook and mood (albeit not always strong ones), easily distinguished while being listened to, but as soon as the average song here is finished, it is near impossible to recall those aspects. It also doesn’t help that while the level of songwriting is pretty strong and consistent, the arrangements tend to screw it up, extending most of the songs to unreasonable lengths (a typical problem for Supertramp). In any case, the album certainly isn’t greater than the sum of its parts.
But those parts are actually pretty darn good. There’s nothing terribly standout here (then again, did Supertramp ever write true standout tunes? Well, a few), but there’s a handful of minor classics to be found here, mixed in with some quasi-filler, but the filler is relatively forgivable, seeing as how the writing is delegated almost solely to Roger Hodgson, with no input yet from keyboardist Rick Davies. So anyone expecting to hear those jazzy music hall ditties the likes of “Bloody Well Right” or “Poor Boy” is going to be disappointed—none of that here, only the trademark Hodgson semi-progressive rootsy, folksy numbers.
That’s not to say the album doesn’t have any rockin’ energy to it. Not a whole lot, but some. Arguably the best track here is the one probably most indicative of the later Supertramp style, the only one that could have passed for a Rick Davies number, “It’s A Long Road.” The main riff, though simple, is genial, and those energetic punches in the chorus, accompanied by a wonderful chord sequence, are an inspired touch that help with memorability. Alongside it is the similar but slightly weaker “Nothing To Show” and the rather clumsy “Maybe I’m A Beggar.” The magnum opus of the record also lies in the “rocker” category, the lengthy marathon “Try Again,” whose shared elements with “It’s A Long Road” make it enjoyable, but whose striking similarities to Genesis’ “The Knife” present something of a con for the record. Then again, “Supertramp” and “Trespass” were released in the same year, so maybe it’s just a crazy coincidence. Whatever it may be, that doesn’t change the fact that the song is easily four minutes too long– cut it down and it’d no doubt be one of the better numbers here, derivative though it may be.
Everywhere else it’s all typical Hodgson, broken into two categories: dark, guitar based ballads, and happy, piano based ballads. In the former group are “Words Unspoken” and “Aubade And I Am Not Like Other Birds Of Prey.” Unnecessarily wordy titles aside, the latter is fascinating, presenting strange hybrid of uplifting acoustic ballad (that verse melody sounds awfully similar to “The Fool On The Hill”) and eerie, psychological ballad—note that weird interlude after the first chorus. What’s with that freaky organ creeping in and out over the acoustic riff? Creepy.
On a more uplifting note, the latter category sports the short but oh so pretty “Home Again,” “Shadow Song” (who could have been one of the best numbers on the album if not for a few convoluted twists in the melody and some unnecessary pretension in the lyrics) and the stunning “Surely,” bookending the album. Feel free to ignore the thirty-second prelude opening the album; it’s the full song ending it that’s worthy of note. Even if it is mostly instrumental, the melody is the best one here. Absolutely genius.
“Supertramp” presents quite the odd effect on the listener. No matter how strong it may be on a song-for-song level, the relatively weak hooks and the murky production cause it to completely slip by on each listen. Funny how that works.