There’s a reason why the Doors’ third album isn’t as well-remembered as its predecessors.
There’s a reason why the Doors’ third album isn’t as well-remembered as its predecessors. Released a scant nine months after 1967’s Strange Days and barely a year and a half after the group’s self-titled debut, Waiting for the Sun was marred by a dwindling repertoire of songs, an increasingly erratic leader and an overly heavy hand from producer Paul Rothchild. Though commercially successful (thanks in large part to hit single “Hello, I Love You”), the album’s critical reception was lukewarm—a state of affairs that hasn’t much improved since 1968. But the music industry loves a golden jubilee and baby boomers actually buy records; so here we are, marking the 50th anniversary of the Doors’ second-weakest album from the Jim Morrison era.
Despite the best efforts of venerable reissue label Rhino Records, this latest deluxe edition is unlikely to change that assessment. Waiting for the Sun is still fussy, oddly sequenced and—even with a runtime shorter than any other Doors album—heavy on filler. Morrison, the group’s chief songwriter and liability, had intended to fill a full vinyl side with his 17-minute theatrical opus “Celebration of the Lizard,” but only the climactic “Not to Touch the Earth” was deemed releasable. Its awkward placement on the final album, between psych-lite ballads “Love Street” and “Summer’s Almost Gone,” underscores its origins as a fragment of a larger piece: Morrison whips the group into a howling climax, proclaims himself “the Lizard King,” and then the song just ends.
Even without the full “Celebration of the Lizard,” Waiting for the Sun still feels overly driven by Morrison the self-styled artist and not enough by Morrison the rock and roller. The frontman Lester Bangs infamously dubbed “Bozo Dionysus” may not hold the same cultural cachet in 2018 as he did in 1968—or, for that matter, during the Doors revivals of the ‘80s and ‘90s—but he was still a capable crooner and a superlative bellower. Here he does too much of the former and not enough of the latter, with the insipid “Wintertime Love” standing out as the worst offender: written by guitarist Robby Krieger, it sounds like the kind of cornball song Andy Williams would have sung, except Williams had a stronger voice.
Both Morrison and Krieger redeem themselves with “Yes, the River Knows,” a quietly poignant piano-led track that makes good on the singer’s hippie-Sinatra aspirations. But Morrison is at his best when he’s less Dionysus, more Bozo. “Hello, I Love You” is Grade-A garage-punk snot—right down to the artlessly stolen chord sequence, which got the band in hot water with Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks. The genuinely deranged way in which Morrison roars “Sidewalk crouches at her feet/Like a dog that begs for something sweet” does a better job of selling his portentous catcalls than they probably deserve. Waiting for the Sun’s other single, the anti-Vietnam War invective “The Unknown Soldier,” suffers a bit from its theatrical pretensions—the radio-play firing-line interlude is more likely to induce eyerolls than gasps—but Morrison’s vocal intensity and Ray Manzarek’s byzantine proto-prog keyboard lines build to a rousing finale. Best of all is the album’s closing track, the doom-laden rocker “Five to One.” Audibly drunk—though not as drunk as he’d be a few months later, heckling and threatening to expose himself to an audience in Miami—Morrison leverages his slurred vocals into boorishly unhinged malevolence, gleefully declaring generational warfare over the band’s heaviest riff. You can practically hear the utopian dreams of the Summer of Love curdling in real time.
That sense of menace—the main reason to listen to the Doors, by most reckonings—is in short supply elsewhere on Waiting for the Sun; this was something Rhino seemed eager to correct with their last reissue in 2007, which added the full unreleased studio version of “Celebration of the Lizard” as well as alternate takes of “Not to Touch the Earth.” These tracks are not duplicated on the 50th Anniversary edition, which for better or worse focuses on supplementing the album as it was rather than filling in what it could have been. Nine “rough mixes” give some much-needed punch to the softer songs in particular, with “Summer’s Always Gone” and “Yes, the River Knows” both benefiting from the more live sound (“Wintertime Love” is beyond help). The remaining five bonus tracks come from a Copenhagen show in September 1968. Like the album, they’re a mixed bag. Morrison’s spoken-word “Texas Radio & The Big Beat”—later transformed into a boozy, bloozy rave-up for 1971’s L.A. Woman—is about as exciting as one would expect a poetry reading at a rock show to be. “Five to One” actually sounds less scary than the studio version, but the band’s segue from “Back Door Man” is a neat trick. “The Unknown Soldier” is longer and more dramatic than on the album; whether or not that’s a good thing depends entirely on one’s tolerance for Lizard King dramatics.
The last 50 years have seen the Doors’ position in the popular music canon fluctuate wildly, from classic-rock and proto-punk touchstone to juvenile guilty pleasure. This album is neither, really—though “My Wild Love,” a cringe-inducing attempt at an African-American work song, treads awfully close to the second category. With Morrison’s brand of hipster toxic masculinity at a low cultural ebb, a critical reappraisal seems unlikely; but even if one does come, it won’t start here. In a catalogue that is somehow both over- and underrated, Waiting for the Sun is simply middling.