(This review originally appeared as a user review on allmusic.com.)
After spending three decades releasing albums for Arista and the 90’s focusing on cover albums, no one would have expected Barry Manilow to hit his artistic and creative peak in 2001 with the release of Here at the Mayflower on jazz label Concord. Although this album provided two minor radio hits and multiple live standards, it went criminally unacknowledged in its own day, giving Manilow one of his worst ever debut sales frames on the Billboard 200. Perhaps the smaller record label was to blame, but what Concord couldn’t offer in sales push, they made up for with recording quality and freedom to let Manilow bring his singular vision to life.
Mayflower is a concept record through-and-through, also the first album since 84’s 2:00 A.M. Paradise Cafe where Manilow wrote all the music himself. This record is also unique in Manilow’s discography by how much of the lyrics were written by Manilow as well. (Lyrics elsewhere were written largely by longtime friend/collaborator Enoch Anderson. Two highlights also come from Bruce Sussman and Marty Panzer, co-writers of “Copacabana” and “Even Now,” respectively.) The album follows a large cast of characters living at the titular New York apartment complex, introduced perfectly in set opener “Do You Know Who’s Living Next Door?” The jewel case lists apartment numbers for each song, cluing listeners into how some characters appear in multiple songs, most notably the heartbreaking couplet “Not What You See” and “I Miss You,” both voiced by an octogenarian named Joe.
Piecing the details together of who’s singing what is only part of the fun, but nothing gets in the way of each song standing well on its own, even with musical motifs appearing throughout and some songs beginning with identical verses. The lyrical conceit works so well and so tightly that the album stays cohesive while spanning a “something-for-everyone” array of genres and styles, from pop-rock and smooth jazz to Latin and Broadway. Narrative cuts like “The Night That Tito Played” and “They Dance!” come close to recreating the magic of “Copacabana,” and album highlight “Talk to Me” builds like a prog-rock number. Other than “Some Bar by the Harbor,” with its endless number of exhilarating and almost wearying dynamic shifts, no song on the album is particularly groundbreaking in and of itself. “Border Train,” for example, is almost a direct musical rip of Boz Scagg’s “Harbor Lights.” But instead of aiming for groundbreaking, songs like “Turn the Radio Up” and “She Should’a Been Mine” are perfect pop songs, no more and no less than what a pop song should be.
Each track gives ample proof that Manilow is a master showman who can dissect any genre and get to the bare bones of what a song needs to succeed. In my opinion, this album deserves credit as one of the finest concept records ever made, but it is a fact that Here at the Mayflower is this timeless performer’s greatest work of art.
5 out of 5 stars