Critics, fans, and the band themselves are in general agreement that 1976’s Hotel California represents the peak of The Eagles’ illustrious career. In addition to the obvious fact that it’s just a top-notch collection of songs, one reason for its preeminence in the band’s catalog is that it showcased their versatility.
Up to that point in their career, it would have been fair to lump the band within the genre of country-tinged soft rock. Early hits like “Take It Easy,” “Tequila Sunrise” and “The Best Of My Love” certainly fit the bill. But the addition of Joe Walsh on guitar allowed the band to spread its wings, so to speak, on Hotel California. The album found room for the sinewy mid-tempo groove of the title track, the crunching rock of “Victim Of Love” and “Life In The Fast Lane,” and the epic sweep of “The Last Resort.”
Perhaps the most left-field departure of them all was “Wasted Time,” a song where co-writers Glenn Frey and Don Henley dared to display their blue-eyed soul. As Frey wrote in the liner notes to The Very Best Of The Eagles, “I loved all the records coming out of Philadelphia at that time. I sent for some sheet music so I could learn some of those songs, and I started creating my own musical ideas with that Philly influence. Don was our Teddy Pendergrass. He could stand out there all alone and just wail. We did a big Philly-type production with strings — definitely not country-rock. You’re not going to find that track on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record or Beach Boys record. Don’s singing abilities stretched so many of our boundaries. He could sing the phone book. It didn’t matter.”
Henley’s performance brims with emotion, from resigned low notes to anguished highs, as he labors to get through to a girl trying to make peace with both the unfulfilled expectations of her youth and the realization that “autumn leaves” are suddenly surrounding her. “Oh my God, you can’t believe/It’s happening again,” he sings, suggesting that she’s been down this lonely road too often before. Henley and Frey pepper the lyrics with couplets that balance West Coast wisdom with heartfelt empathy:
“You don’t care much for a stranger’s touch/But you can’t hold your man” or “Sometimes to keep it together/You got to leave it alone.” Over the entire narrative, time looms as the main enemy: “You never thought you’d be alone/This far down the line”; “And the hours go by like minutes”; “And the years keep rushing on.”
The melody teases out the melancholy without overplaying it, and Henley really tears into it. In the closing moments, with the strings swirling, he finds, if not a happy ending, then at least a resolution for this damaged duo: “So you can get on with your search, baby/And I can get on with mine/And maybe someday we will find/That it wasn’t really wasted time.” Maybe he truly believes it, or maybe he just can’t admit the alternative because it’s too painful to bear.
All over Hotel California, The Eagles showed that they were far more than a one-trick pony group, all while cataloging what happens when California dreamers come crashing down to Earth. On “Wasted Time,” at least they gave two of those lost souls a soft and soulful place to land.