What happens when a rock band has a literati as a lyricist? You end up with a band whose songs are more diverse than any other artist in rock. Of course, Rush (the band, not the blowhard) has a long history of lyrics with their roots in literature since their lyricist (and drummer), Neil Peart, is a heavy reader with wide interests. In his younger days he wrote some lyrics that were inspired by Ayn Rand but he soon grew out of that ("oh no, that was 40 years ago") and began reaching out to the far edges of literature. From The Lord Of The Rings to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to histories and science fiction, you can find hundreds of literary references in Peart's lyrics. He has certainly justified his band mate's decision to turn lyric writing over to him soon after he joined them in 1974.
Follow me over the orange squiggle to learn more about the new release and how Voltaire and steampunk figure in...
The latest effort by the long-lasting Rush is Clockwork Angels, an honest-to-goodness concept album -- something that few would even attempt but this band has a history of daring them. Of course, the last time they did it was in 1978 (Hemispheres) but they have not lost their ability to maintain a story-line. This particular story has influences as far-ranging as Candide and the world of steampunk. As Peart tells it, he and his band mates were discussing possibilities for their next album in 2009 and he began to describe the concept he had: "Well, I've been thinking lately about this setting ... And I explained this whole steampunk thing to the guys and they seemed kind of intrigued. So I started working, and the story came together organically." Also figuring in the story are Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and the legends of Cibola and Eldorado. Peart put them all together to tell the story of a young man's life and adventures in a steampunk world inspired by his friend, Kevin J. Anderson, who is a pioneer in the steampunk oeuvre.
One theme that runs through the album, and through the book that influenced it, is "all is for the best" and how that philosophy changes for the protagonists. In Candide, the philosopher Pangloss maintains this outlook despite the misfortune that befalls him and his young student. After meeting back up with him towards the end of the book, Candide asks him:
"Well, my dear Pangloss," said Candide to him, "when you had been hanged, dissected, whipped, and were tugging at the oar, did you always think that everything happens for the best?"In the lyrics of BU2B (Brought Up To Believe), Peart first brings up the idea:
"I am still of my first opinion," answered Pangloss, "for I am a philosopher and I cannot retract..."
All is for the bestThe protagonist of Clockwork Angels, Owen Hardy, is setting out to make his fortune, and obviously questioning the status quo. This is in contrast to Candide who seldom did so. However, this will not make much difference in their eventual paths -- many adventures await both young men.
Believe in what we're told
Blind men in the market
Buying what we're sold
For Candide, his adventure takes him from his "best of all possible worlds" in Westphalia to the Bulgarian army and into a war which he finds has certain rules. Hardy, who was also told that he lived in the "best of all possible worlds," leaves his small village and begins his adventures in Crown City, which operates under its own rules. There, the Watchmaker - a benevolent ruler much like Candide's Baron - rules through the alchemical-priests, who speak through the Angels:
Clockwork Angels raise their arms and singThe Angels are the spiritual machinery through which the Watchmaker keeps the population distracted and happy. There doesn't seem to be any malevolence to the Watchmaker's rule -- indeed, he disguises himself as a Pedlar, going about and asking his people, "What do you lack?" so as to make their lives better -- yet everything is dictated and the fates of all are seen as inevitable. They have been taught that whatever happens to them must be for the best else it wouldn't happen. Much like Candide's Pangloss, the people of this steampunk world do believe that "all is for the best."
Synchronized and graceful, they move like living things
Goddesses of light, of Sea and Sky and Land
Clockwork Angels, the people raise their hands -- as if to fly
Somewhat like Candide's conscription into war, Hardy also has a moment of no-return when an anarchist tosses a bomb his way during a street carnival. The Anarchist (from a character in the Conrad novel) has his own song in which we learn of his hatred for the docile and happy people of the City:
The lenses inside of me that paint the world blackHardy cries out to warn to crowd but is mistaken for the bomber himself. He flees with the carnival, beginning his real adventures. Like Candide, his escape will take him many places. But where Candide was driven away from love, Owen is driven towards it and falls in love with a performer in the carnival. Like so many before him, he finds his heart broken:
The pools of poison, the scarlet mist that spills over into rage
The things I've always been denied
An early promise that somehow died
A missing part of me that grows around me like a cage
What did I see?The same could be said of Candide's love, Cunegonde, for whom he chased all over the world. Both men see an illusion and graft their ideal upon the woman they love. Hardy's lament:
Fool that I was
A goddess with wings on her heels
All my illusions
Projected on her
The ideal that I wanted to see
So shameful to tellcould easily be said of Candide, as well. For when he learns that his beloved is indeed alive, they wind up traveling across the sea to South America, chasing yet another illusion. This time, after even more separations and adventures, Candide stumbles upon the real thing: Eldorado. In Clockwork Angels, Hardy leaves the carnival, broken heart and all, and crosses the sea in search of the most famous of the seven cities of gold, Cibola.
Just how often I fell
In love with illusions again
Seven Cities of GoldHis travels take him from sculpted deserts to frozen wastelands but unlike Candide, he is not successful in his quest. Candide, spending a month in Eldorado, chooses to continue on his quest for a life with his beloved. He is again thwarted and makes his way back over the sea. Hardy, too, returns to the port city and finds a berth on a ship sailing homeward. Both men wind up just short of their destinations: Candide's ship is sunk while Owen's ship is lured onto a reef by The Wreckers:
Stories that fired my imagination
Seven Cities of Gold
A splendid mirage in this desolation
Seven Cities of Gold
Glowing in my dreams like hallucinations
Glitter in the sun like a revelation
Distant as a comet or a constellation
Driven aground, with that awful soundOwen is the only one left alive. This is, of course, where DuMarier's Jamaica Inn influenced the story. Candide, having survived his shipwreck goes on to survive other close calls and have many reunions. The narrative for Clockwork Angels skips over the rest of Hardy's adventures -- though we will get a complete accounting in the companion novel penned by Kevin J. Anderson very soon.
Drowned by a cheer from ashore
We wonder what for
The people swarm through the darkling storm
Gather everything they can score
'Til their backs won't bear anymore
Now Owen reminisces, speaking of his adventures and how he wishes he could live it all again. Here is the only lyric influenced by real-life. Peart's drumming guru, Freddie Gruber, died last fall. One of the last things he said to his student was, "What a ride. I wish that I could live it all again." Peart pays tribute to Gruber in the lyrics and the song's introduction:
THINKING BACK OVER MY LIFE, AND TELLING STORIES ABOUT MY “GREAT ADVENTURES” — they didn’t always feel that grand at the time. But on balance, I wouldn’t change anything. In the words of one of our great alchemists, Friedrich Gruber, “I wish I could do it all again.”Much as Candide lost his optimism in the face of the inhumanity he encountered:
"Oh, Pangloss!" cried Candide, "thou hadst not guessed at this abomination; it is the end. I must at last renounce thy optimism."so, now, does Owen find his belief failing him:
"What is this optimism?" said Cacambo.
"Alas!" said Candide, "it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong."
I was brought up to believeYet, even as Candide finally did, he chooses to live:
Belief has failed me now
The bright glow of optimism
Abandoned me somehow
I still choose to liveand finds that his belief has not failed him but has simply changed, grown and evolved.
And give, even while I grieve
Though the balance tilts against me
I was brought up to believe
One of the ways his belief changed was in his reactions to people who make problems in his life. When he was younger, he allowed them to influence him too much (didn't we all?). Now, he has decided to cut them loose:
Thank your stars you’re not that wayAnd now Candide and Clockwork Angels converge again. The former is even mentioned by name in the Introduction to the final song:
Turn your back and walk away
Don’t even pause and ask them why
Turn around and say goodbye
LONG AGO I READ A STORY FROM ANOTHER TIMELINE about a character named Candide. He also survived a harrowing series of misadventures and tragedies, then settled on a farm near Constantinople. Listening to a philosophical rant, Candide replied, “That is all very well, but now we must tend our garden.”
I have now arrived at that point in my own story. There is a metaphorical garden in the acts and attitudes of a person’s life, and the treasures of that garden are love and respect. I have come to realize that the gathering of love and respect — from others and for myself — has been the real quest of my life.
“Now we must tend our garden.”
So that takes care of the story but what about the music? Ah.... I can dutifully report that it is, as the kids say: Full of Win. I will take the songs one-by-one and link the video in their titles so as not to slow this for those who get bogged down with embeds. It is important to read the Introductions to the songs as there are several points not covered here. You can find them along with the lyrics at Cygnus X-1, the best Rush info website around.
Producer Nick Raskulinecz drove Lee, Lifeson and Peart to heights that they may have not even known they could reach. But after the success of their Time Machine Tour and the virtuosity with which they are now playing, they were willing to be driven. Old equipment and effects were resurrected, including Taurus pedals -- they had to rent what turned out to be the very set they had used on the Permanent Waves tour in 1979 and later sold. Raskulinecz and Peart used a new method of creating drum parts on this album, with Raskulinecz "conducting" the drummer in his parts. The spontaneity is clear and refreshing, showing Peart's abilities to the hilt.
Dedicated to the memory of our dear friend Andrew MacNaughtan,Caravan is the album opener. Rush fans will recognize this and the following song as the ones that were released in 2010 and performed on the Time Machine Tour. They haven't been re-recorded but they have been fine-tuned and sweetened a bit. This is a straight-ahead rocker with some intense work from all three band members. A great way to start the journey.
February 25, 1964 - January 25, 2012
BU2B (Brought Up To Believe) has a new acoustic beginning with echoing vocals and effects. But it goes into a grungy, driving sound soon enough.
Clockwork Angels starts out with echoing, airy effects which fade as Lifeson's guitar grinds the gears into motion. The drums on this track will please those who like them deep and resonant. Lee and Lifeson manage to move between driving rock and blues effortlessly. If you like Rush because of their Prog sensibilities, this track will make you happy. It's crowned by the second best Lifeson solo on the album.
The Anarchist hearkens back to an earlier Rush sound with crashy guitar, thumping bass and Peart going to the floor toms with vigor. The riff will pop up in your head when you least expect it. The spooky whisper of "what do you lack" (the Pedlar's cry - see, you need to read the Introductions) is echoed by Lee's bass in a particularly neat touch. Listen for the musical cue and then the Anarchist's answer. After cranking us up it cross fades into...
Carnies which sets up the atmosphere, fading in with crowd noise and carnival music. Then an incredibly gritty guitar comes at us (I swear that a 20-year-old Lifeson must have been time traveled here just for this), setting up Lee's bass and vocals. But Lifeson has another trick up his sleeve, with a flanged, mechanical-sounding guitar flitting around the mix. The insistent rhythms climb and then end suddenly, leaving us breathless.
Halo Effect gives us time to catch our breath with trademark Lifeson acoustic work and smooth vocals from Lee. If any Rush song could be considered a power ballad, it's this one. Yet they instill it with their trademark sounds, raising it above the typical power ballad. Oh, did I mention the strings? Yes, Rush availed themselves of a string section and they fit perfectly here and in the other four songs in which they appear. Trust me.
Seven Cities Of Gold begins with a funky bass-line laid down by Lee while Lifeson adds atmosphere and Peart teases us with cymbal and cowbell. When they all line up and the riff begins, they have us with them and ready to go. This is one to turn up loud. It also has one of my favorite lines: "Wake to aching cold and a deep Sahara of snow..." Isn't that evocative?
The Wreckers begins with a deceptively upbeat guitar which sounds almost jangle-pop-REM-ish. As the story unfolds it grows darker without losing that feel. I know that sounds like a reach but it's not. This song was written "backwards": Lifeson and Lee, during the writing process, switched instruments to freshen their approach to the song (this turned out well for me as Lee's guitar parts are easier for me to learn) though they stuck with their usual axes for recording. Both musicians have referred to this as "our Barenaked Ladies song."
Headlong Flight begins with Lee's airy bass riff. He is soon joined by his band mates and the fun begins. There is a deliberate evocation of Bastille Day with bass and drum interplay behind the guitar. Then soaring guitars, driving bass and drums that shuffle between primitive and sublime are a fitting tribute to Mr. Gruber. We are taken on a headlong flight, indeed. For the nostalgic listener, Lifeson brings out his old wah-wah pedal for the solo. Hang on!
BU2B2 is a reprise of the earlier song and here the strings are shown to be a brilliant choice. Lee's smooth vocal speaks of despair and hope in one of his best vocals on the album.
Wish Them Well builds on that hope with an upbeat, bouncy feel and the arpeggiated guitar under the chorus takes an almost sunny turn. This is the closest Rush will ever get to pop yet they still maintain their own sound. The lyrics are loaded with great advice (which I wish I'd heard when I was young). The paraphrased Churchill quote at the end is a nice exclamation point to the entire philosophy.
The Garden brings us to the end of the journey with the strings reappearing under Lee's soft bass. Lifeson's acoustic takes over as Lee begins singing his best vocals on the disc. Strings and piano accentuate the simple yet profound lyrics, with Peart coming in so softly that you hardly notice at first. The song builds to Lifeson's best solo on the album. By the time the song fades away, I dare you not to have a tear in your eye. Many Rush fans have pondered the possibility of this being the band's last studio album and if that were the case, this song would make a beautiful and poignant coda to their long career. If you listen to nothing else here -- and if you're not even a Rush fan, I thank you for sticking with me all this way -- listen to this song. I guarantee it will move you.
So there you have it: Clockwork Angels is an album by a band that is comfortable with itself, marked by jams and virtuoso playing. It swings between heavy and soft, rough and soothing. It is cinematic and evocative -- it's easy to envision the story and settings. And it is fun, both for the artists and for the listener. Many fans are calling this their best album in 20 years. I'll leave that up to you. But it is definitely worth your time.
As is the book that inspired it. Candide may have been written in the late 18th century but Voltaire's observations of life still hold true today. And we all have a garden to tend.
 Q&A: Neil Peart On Rush's New LP and Being a 'Bleeding Heart Libertarian': By Andy Greene; June 12, 2012
 Voltaire (2011-03-30). Candide (p. 91). Kindle Edition.
 ibid. (p. 53).