With 1970's Workingman's Dead, the Grateful Dead went through an overnight metamorphosis, turning abruptly from tripped-out free-form rock toward sublime acoustic folk and Americana. Taking notes on vocal harmonies from friends Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Dead used the softer statements of their fourth studio album as a subtle but moving reflection on the turmoil, heaviness, and hope America's youth was facing as the idealistic '60s ended. American Beauty was recorded just a few months after its predecessor, both expanding and improving on the bluegrass, folk, and psychedelic country explorations of Workingman's Dead with some of the band's most brilliant compositions. The songs here have a noticeably more relaxed and joyous feel. Having dived headfirst into this new sound with the previous album, the bandmembers found the summit of their collaborative powers here, with lyricist Robert Hunter penning some of his most poetic work, Jerry Garcia focusing more on gliding pedal steel than his regular electric lead guitar work, and standout lead vocal performances coming from Bob Weir (on the anthem to hippie love "Sugar Magnolia"), Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (on the husky blues of "Operator"), and Phil Lesh (on the near-perfect opening tune, "Box of Rain").
Marcel, a simple-minded factory worker, is tricked into buying a high-priced American convertible by a widow determined not to let it fall into the hands of her late husband's secretary/secret lover. Once in possession of the car, Marcel only encounters one bad luck episode after another with the excessive gasoline consumption, his wife trying to sell it to make ends meet, getting into traffic jams, accidentally riding into a car wash with the top down, and more.