Rush – Clockwork Angels

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Origin, Morality, Meaning, and Destiny. These are the existential questions that each person faces when considering one’s life. Whether resolved by a personal or theological dogma or left unanswered by speculative inquiry amidst changing life experiences, our touch points with these questions at a particular moment define who we are, neatly segmented from the what we do that that defines our occupation.

And here I am with Clockwork Angels, a new album by Rush, a surprisingly rich album both lyrically and musically, from a band caught in various shades of the creativity status quo for at least the past 20 years of their 40 year career.  And, it comes in the form of a “concept” album, which often risks the label of “conceit” by critics of progressive rock bands.

Musically, this CD rocks. Practically every song comes with a driving bass line, strong guitar leads and frenetic percussion. There are no velvet gloves, unless wrapped around iron fists. I find it refreshing.  I don’t know that it can be said that Rush has been going through the motions of creating new music, and hardcore fans would argue that each album has a measure of awesomeness.  But nothing has really struck me by the band for many, many years.  This album, though, reflects on their songs that I like, perhaps a nod towards the fan favorites that receive the best welcomes during their regular touring. Why not give the people what they want?  In short, the rocking power trio reigns over past preoccupations with keyboards or other bows to current musical tastes.  This isn’t a “let’s peddle another album” project, but rather a committed and enthusiastic musical recording.

Fine stuff.

Conversely, some might hold that, like Porcupine Tree and other current progressive metal bands, the music does not always marry the lyric. Aggressive, dark tones are heard as an emotion – anger, frustration, rebellion, but if that tone does not represent the lyrical content, then it’s a mismatch. The opener, “Caravan,” in no way reads towards an attitude beyond a middle of the road approach, but, amps are definitely plugged in.  It’s a “say hello to the new Rush album” opener.   On the other hand, Geddy Lee’s distinctive but limited vocal styling necessarily limits the options for an emotional connection.  It’s a challenge that the band has known before, and Lee delivers conviction whenever possible.  But this is not a band known for its ballads.  That said, in that my feet are often tapping when I’m not paying close attention, the music obviously works well enough for me.

Listening more closely reveals a band at their peak.  Alex Lifeson delivers some great guitar riffs and leads - just lend an ear to “The Garden,” “The Anarchist,” or “The Wreckers.” Possibly in a sort of role reversal, Lee is aggressive and inventive on bass, rarely content to just pound out a rhythm, while drummer/lyricist Neil Peart delivers “just” what is appropriate for each song, without grandstanding (on a Neil Peart scale of such a term, of course).

Lyrically, the CD sketches a story of a journey which will shortly be novelized by sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson. With ample inclusions of Steampunk imagery, it could be an interesting tale. For those who are content with episodic notions of an epic adventure, the lyrics and storyline intros in the booklet are good enough to make an enjoyable CD. But, for those who think more deeply…

The centerpiece of the CD is “BU2B” a texting abbreviation for “brought up to believe.” Neil Peart has always been philosophical and introspective, traits which when focused define the better part of the band’s repertoire. “BU2B” is the most honest and literal expression by Peart of where his existential search has led him (against well documented struggles with the untimely loss of his daughter and wife).  This is cleverly placed within a storyline that puts forward a decidedly hyper-Calvinistic “god problem” against which the protagonist can wrestle:

I was brought up to believe
The universe has a plan
We are only human
It's not ours to understand

The universe has a plan
All is for the best
Some will be rewarded
And the devil will take the rest

All is for the best
Believe in what we're told
Blind men in the market
Buying what we're sold
Believe in what we're told
Until our final breath
While our loving Watchmaker
Loves us all to death

In a world of cut and thrust
I was always taught to trust
In a world where all must fail
Heaven's justice will prevail

The joy and pain that we receive
Each comes with its own cost
The price of what we're winning
Is the same as what we've lost

Until our final breath
The joy and pain that we receive
Must be what we deserve
I was brought up to believe

The storyline is an odyssey, and what Anderson makes of it may make it more compelling with a lengthier narrative.   For my interest, it’s an inventive means of telling a story that ultimately allows Peart to insert his worldview without offending the sensibilities of anyone seeking to be offended. 

Given that faith, in his depicted world, is given to an observably absent “god” (The Watchmaker) and his emotionless automatons (Clockwork Angels), it’s clear that theism isn’t an option for Peart. So, between atheism and agnosticism, then, how should one live?  Peart admits in a very insightful interview that the conclusion here is his own story in many ways.

From the closing track, “The Garden:”

In this one of many possible worlds, all for the best, or a bizarre test?
It is what it is  - and whatever
Time is still the infinite jest

The arrow flies when you dream, the hours tick away - the cells tick away
The Watchmaker keeps to his schemes
The hours tick away - they tick away

The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect

The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give
In the fullness of time
Is the only return you expect

There’s still a resentment, if not anger, against The Watchmaker for being unknown and seemingly uninvolved, but not an outright rejection that he is.  Amidst the implied problems of evil (the anarchist) and suffering, Peart obviously has failed to find a god who “lives” up to his needs or expectations.

His conclusion, though, adheres to most religious teaching. Love yourself; love your neighbor. Observably, most arrive at that conclusion whether deeply contemplated or not.  It begs the question, for Peart, the band’s last decade, and/or this CD, of how things might have unfolded had “the protagonist” embraced hate and destruction, becoming an Anarchist himself.  In agnostic terms, the moral poles are open for the choosing without ultimate accountability, so why not?   As a follow-up to this (as well as their classic song, “Freewill”)  perhaps he’ll explore why he makes the choices he makes, or, more compellingly, how anyone might judge someone else’s particular choices as right or wrong, as each does right in his own eyes.

Really good albums are a great to hear, but also make you think.

4 of 5 STARS

3 comments :

  1. My wife is a huge Rush fan, and this is her favorite album in years.

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  2. I agree with so much of what you've said here about the new album. What's really interesting is that I have the sad priviledge of joining The Protagonist in some of the tragedy that lead him to the place he is in about faith. Fortunately, unlike him I didnt lose my wife, I only lost my child. It was enough of a loss to ask The Watchmaker the continually unanswered $64,000 question....WHY? Why did it happen? Why did it happen the way it happened? Why did he have to suffer so badly in the process? Etc etc etc.....Ive been a Rush fanatic since I was 13 (Im 45 now) and this is the first time I can ever really remember that Neil's lyrics connected with me on a Spiritual level. While being and growing up a musician, I have had the luxury of always setting the lyrics aside and being a Rush fan for the MUSIC in and of itself. That is no longer the case with this album. There is definitely something here that reaches past musical skill into a realm Ive not been into with them before. At the end of the day though, I still "choose to believe" and my faith grows more everyday, despite the lack of answers to my deepest heartaches.

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  3. Thanks - for reading and sharing. I can't imagine and try not to even think about deep personal losses. They'll come, and I'll deal with them when they do.

    In giving this a re-read, I'd recommend Ravi Zacharias' "Can Man Live Without God" - a very thoughtful book that was rewarding once I realized I had to stop and think along the way. Some of the comments here reflect on that book directly.

    I would be pressed to recite much of Rush's lyrics beyond the choruses. Like you, the music, with Lee's voice simply an instrument, is enough. But I do like "old" CDs, when the booklet includes lyrics. I gain so much more, positively or negatively, about what I'm listening to when I'm more thoughtful about the words.

    Thanks again, and best wishes on your journey.

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