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It is fashionable to rediscover brilliant but unrecognized records. Perhaps it’s an appeal to the notion that good work should be acknowledged — that wrongs are righted by belated praise. Maybe we see such records as forerunners, too weird and out of time in their day but now ready to be vindicated and dramatically gestured toward. Or it could be something like the ruins of Pompeii: a moment in time perfectly preserved and immune to context, songs free of the psychic baggage of decades of playback in jukeboxes and televisions.
None of this quite describes 1972’s Suite for Late Summer by Dion. The artist is a Rock Hall of Famer, the album is not so much lost as it is absent from Spotify and Wikipedia (aside: that might be enough), and the music within is not prophetic. What it is, however, is a tastefully orchestrated pop folk artifact as meandering and finite as the late summer days its promises. Here, a former teen pop idol makes his case for maturity and artistic credibility with mixed results. But to his credit, it’s more interesting when the old ways he decries bubble to the surface.
Dion DiMucci is the only rocker on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s if you’re not counting Dylan or any Beatles. He’s the clean-cut teenager smiling at John Lennon’s 10 o’clock. With his group The Belmonts, Dion scored hits in the late 50s with “I Wonder Why” and “A Teenager in Love.” He toured with Buddy Holly and was scheduled to be on the flight that claimed Holly’s life, along with J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens, the latter of which allegedly took DiMucci’s seat.
He went solo in the early 60s and offered up the one-two punch of “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” canonical golden oldies (and gold standards in double standards). But by 1967, Dion’s career had cooled down: he was quickly becoming a member of the old guard and checking off the standard To-Do List of the Sixties: Dylan, the blues, heroin. The inclusion of his teenage headshot on The Beatles’ record would seem (at least in retrospect) to be the final word on his place in the popular pantheon.
But enough has been said about that record here and elsewhere. Sgt. Pepper’s is something of a career demarcation for Dion, a line drawn between his salad days and his later quest for artistic recognition. The first sign of such a rebirth came in 1968 with the release of “Abraham, Martin, & John,” a rumination on the recent assassinations of Dr. King and John and Bobby Kennedy. It repackaged Dion as a socially aware pop folkie while showcasing what would become his sound in the years to come: circular song structures, delicate guitars, and pop orchestration. Four years later, Suite for Late Summer doubled down on this seemingly winning recipe.
If nothing else, this album is aptly named: Suite for Late Summer is a slow-burning song cycle straddling the line between sparsely orchestrated folk and country. Dion employs the same sonic palette throughout, with new songs picking up where the previous ones left off, as in the jump between the baroque-folk “Soft Parade of Years” to the James Taylor churn of “Running Close Behind You.” The album rolls along at a more or less steady pace; there are no substantial instrumental workouts, no major detours. The conceit that this album is a suite, however, makes this seem more like deliberate cohesiveness than monochromaticity. In that cohesion lies the promised portrait of late summer, where single days wind down at a lethargic pace but are inevitably finite. The album cover depicts this well: light moves through the leaves, landing on shaggy grass. Dion himself is covered in shadow (a “friend of the darkness” in the country/“Traveller in the Rain”) but not quite made in the shade. The time of day is ambiguous as it is unimportant.
The album cover mirrors the music in a second way: Dion looks a bit out of place. Although hitting the contemporary trend of sitting in an enormous wicker chair on the nose, he looks much more like Jim Jones than he does Nick Drake or Cat Stevens. This otherness manifests in clumsy Dylanisms and a few wooden songs. The songwriting cannot compete in 1972, but removed from the era, Suite is easier to enjoy for what it is: a former pop star with a beautiful voice stabbing toward art nearly two decades since his heyday. It is clear that Dion is drawing deeply from the same well as modern-retro songwriters like Tobias Jesso Jr., but that makes them distant cousins rather than direct descendants. Primarily co-written by Dion and Bill Tuohy, songs tend toward abstraction and universal themes. Their cities are negative and regressive, staging grounds for infidelity; the elements of rain, wind, and sunlight are inherently good. Nature becomes a background for reflection and redemption. It’s poetic if not necessarily poetry.
The highlight of the experience is Dion’s insistence that Suite is a clean break from his old ways — and then watching him relapse almost immediately. Eleven years prior in “Runaround Sue,” he publicly shamed a fictional ex, ostensibly to warn the listener of her promiscuity; months later, the verses of “The Wanderer” are simply a named list of conquests. Dion wrestles with this throughout Suite, and he promises in the opening verse of the album that “[his] wanderlust no longer overtakes [him].” It’s a knowing wink, but it’s also a sign of things to come: three songs in on the loving-and-leaving “Traveller in the Rain,” he plans to be gone by the morning. With such an interpretation, side B opener “The Wedding Song” is almost an ironic punchline to side A closer “Sea Gull,” an ode to complete freedom. These contradictions and struggles, however, enrich the proceedings. Dion would probably want us to listen to Suite with memories of his pop catalog stowed; I contend that it’s essential backstory that looms too heavily at the margins of the album to ignore.
Side B dispenses with the country and dials up the self-contemplation. Here are the record’s high points, highest of which is “Jennifer Knew,” in which intimacy and vulnerability hit their peak. The knowing, accepting titular figure seems to be the only one who can see through Dion’s posturing and pride. Nowhere else is he more exposed, nowhere more candid. The rest of the song cycle ranges from the saccharine (“The Wedding Song”) to the sunbaked and nostalgic (“Didn’t You Change”), but all continuing to wrestle with love, loyalty, and leaving in the same slow, summery burn. By the closer “To Dream Tomorrow” (perhaps not coincidentally Dion’s only solo-penned number here), he is fully and finally resigned to getting out of town. For an artist trying to distance himself from his hit song (and persona) about being a town-to-town and heart-to-heart wanderer, it’s bold — or at least telling — of Dion to come to terms with it. The album’s stylistic repetition seems to underscore the reality that each summer day may start out with good intentions and ambitions, but in most cases we invariably and inevitably watch each day end as the same person we were when it began.
Suite’s lack of recognition in its day is no shock: there are no immediately apparent hits and there is no obvious audience. These are the artistic flexings of a pop dinosaur that are too far removed from the old hits to interest his original audience, and too far outpaced by the young artists he seeks to emulate. Dion followed Suite for Late Summer with a Phil Spector-produced bomb and ultimately returned to the blues, where he resides today. What this album relates to us about Dion as an artist, however, is the power of insistence. The press release insert in the record emphasizes that this is Dion’s artistic apex to date. It may not be a masterpiece, but it is his masterpiece. Like any great singer-songwriter album, it cultivates a persona and wrestles with it. It exposes contradictions. It’s human. The artist’s attempts to distance his album from his malty, teenaged wandering past were doomed in 1972, and they are doomed in 2015. But fortunately, that past provides backstory and contrast that makes Suite for Late Summer a richer experience than its non-reputation would suggest.
Pairs well with: Summer (early or late), wicker, astral weeks and lethargic days.
I live in Washington DC, where I am either outside thinking about writing or inside promising to do so.