We’re Not in Xanadu Anymore: Rush, A Farewell to Kings
Once upon a time, in that purely mythical land called Canada, a power trio called Rush sat down and said, “Let us abandon our blues-based approach to rock, and mold a new reality, closer to the heart. Featuring lots of Renaissance Faire type 12-string guitar shit and long and meandering conceptual songs featuring unnecessarily complex time signatures and lots of cool glockenspiel and dumb fantasy lyrics that will blow 14-year-old minds.”
And true to their word our power-prog triumvirate went on to forge their creativity, and the result was 1977’s A Farewell to Kings, which depending on how you look at things is either one very deep prog-nasty foray into the philosophy of the lamentable Ayn Rand or one of the greatest comedy albums of our time. The great thing about A Farewell to Kings is you can’t lose.
I have an imperfect understanding of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s concept of “perfect duty,” but what I think he was trying to say is that one has an actual moral responsibility to laugh at Rush. They’re trying so hard. Too hard, and that’s the problem. They just can’t help overcomplicating matters. There are some nice bits on their longer songs, and even on the shorter title track, but they get lost in all the other bits and if you’re like me you’re simply not willing to listen to all the other bits just to hear the bits you like. And then there’s the thorny issue of Geddy Lee, who seems to have stolen his vocal chords from some giant swooping and screeching predator bird from Middle Earth. In my case Geddy’s pipes are the equivalent of thumbscrews for the ears, and I’ll be damned if I know how anybody puts up with them.
I like the majestic opening of “A Farewell to Kings,” but I withdraw my allegiance the moment Lee opens his Big Bird mouth. Alex Lifeson plays some great guitar shortly thereafter, but like I said before: I’m simply incapable of putting up with Lee’s pipes long enough to get to Lifeson’s playing. “Cinderella Man” is Ayn Rand set to music; our Cinderella Man shows his riches to the poor as an incentive for them to get up off their lazy asses and work, because sharing his wealth would be, well, immoral. This Rand person would have gotten along wonderfully with Donald Trump. Anyway, “Cinderella Man” would almost be listenable if it weren’t for its dumb and reprehensible lyrics and Geddy’s voice both of which are front and center, and one is yet again left with liking parts but not the whole. I really like Lifeson’s sustained guitar solo, for instance. Perhaps I can sample it and listen to it without having to hear all the objectivist crapola that surrounds it.
I used to hate “Closer to the Heart” until I realized that it was one of the funniest songs ever to make it onto FM radio. Now I know its words by heart and turn it on whenever I need a laugh. Its sincerity of message is altogether risible, especially when one realizes that in Ayn Rand’s world what getting closer to the heart really means is embracing laissez-faire capitalism and utterly rejecting ethical altruism. Fuck the poor! That said, its opening reminds me of Kansas, and how can a song that reminds me of Kansas possibly be wrong? “Madrigal,” on the other hand, is a totally forgettable piece of swords and sorcery balladry on which you can practically hear Neil Peart fuming about his rudimentary drum assignment, which doesn’t allow him to show off his mastery of the 6,000 different percussion instruments that make up his drum kit. “Can’t I at least throw in some triangle?” I can imagine him whining. And in my humble opinion any Rush song on which Lifeson doesn’t get a solo is a wasted Rush song.
“Cygnus X-1 Book 1: The Voyage” is every bit as memorable as its title. This futuristic sci-fi spectacular begins as an odd prog exercise in controlled robotic funk—which is unfortunately utterly devoid in soul—and then commences to lurch along in a manner that I find less than captivating. Indeed, the 10-plus minute opus lacks even a single moment of instrumental frenzy or catharsis, although the trio gamely strives towards such at the end. And once again, no Lifeson. The sorrow and the pity!
As for the 11-minute “Xanadu”—I have often petitioned the powers that be to impose a permanent moratorium on songs based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s immortal poetic fragment, but to no avail—it opens on a pastoral note complete with bird chirp, wood blocks, and even the stray church bell, only to finally kick into gear most proggishly. Then it makes a quick about face, reinventing itself as a rocker before making yet another about face towards the synthesizer—and I think you get the point. This isn’t a song, it’s a serious manifestation of Attention Deficit Disorder, and the best I can say for it is that a full 5 minutes pass before Lee commences his gorcrow-like squawking about seeking the sacred river Alph and breaking his fast on honey dew. “Xanadu” is yet another case of massive complication overkill resulting from a strict adherence to the lamentable prog Prinzip that when it comes to hooks quantity tops quality every time. I mean, a song with sixty chord changes HAS to be better than one with three, right? Right??
The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau called A Farewell to Kings-era Rush “the most obnoxious band currently making a killing on the zonked teen circuit,” but can 30 million Rush fans (I just picked that number out of a hat) really be wrong? Yes and no. I will forever hold that the combination of Lee’s voice and the band’s preening progressive rock impulses are the very definition of obnoxiousness. But Rush seem to mark a necessary stage in the development of many young music fans, in the same way that Frank Zappa did in mine. What I find worrisome are those who never outgrow them. To these folks all I can say is, it’s time to mold a new reality, you know, closer to the heart. Closer to the heart!
GRADED ON A CURVE: