After the success of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” The Byrds stuck to the Bob Dylan songbook, releasing “All I Really Want to Do” as their second single and covering “Spanish Harlem Incident” and “Chimes of Freedom” on the Mr. Tambourine Man LP. To allay charges that they leaned too heavily on Dylan for material, they scrapped plans to release “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” as their third single. Instead, they replaced it with a song penned by folk revival patriarch Pete Seeger, whose “The Bells of Rhymney” had also appeared on the band’s debut album. “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)” became an even bigger hit than “Mr. Tambourine Man,” swept along by the gathering momentum of the folk-rock boom that The Byrds themselves had launched. The record’s flowery 12-string guitar, campfire vocals and gentle optimism (“a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”) offered an appealing alternative to Barry McGuire’s apocalyptic Vietnam nightmare, even as the line “a time for war and a time for peace” implied the necessity of both states.
“Turn! Turn! Turn!” finds The Byrds fully settled in their element, polishing and embellishing the genre hybrid of “Mr. Tambourine Man” into a seamless, finely-wrought piece of musical craftsmanship. (It helps that the whole band are playing their instruments this time around.) The biblically-derived lyrics share the vague mystical profundity of Dylan’s work, but their comparative straightforwardness avoids competing with the band’s ornate arrangement. The extended length (nearly four minutes) allows more space for the song to unwind, giving it the shape and direction of a complete statement rather than the forced brevity of their debut.
But as with their earlier singles, there’s a formality to the band’s pristine vocals and unmussed instrumentation that renders it opaque, holding the listener at arm’s length. It isn’t that The Byrds were incapable of genuine feeling – look at anything Gene Clark wrote – but that they often prioritized aesthetics over emotion. This wasn’t always the case: the melancholy of the band’s next single, “Set You Free This Time,” would be the first ripple the tranquil pond, while the disparity between the exquisite harmonies and searing guitar in “Eight Miles High” resulted in one of the decade’s greatest records. But “Turn! Turn! Turn!” remains a masterpiece in a different sense: a piece of art you can appreciate for its skill and admire for its beauty, even if you can never quite make your own. 7
Hit #1 on December 4, 1965; total of 3 weeks at #1
149 of 1015 #1’s reviewed; 14.68% through the Hot 100