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On Clockwork Angels

June 15, 2012

A new Rush album is, in effect, the most important part of my life. It’s only happened three times since I started listening to music, after all: Vapor Trails, Snakes and Arrows, and now Clockwork Angels.

Full disclosure: Rush were my first band. I know pretty much every word to every song they’ve ever written, and there’s a lot of those. Every difficult situation in my life has been backed, musically, by their songs. And I still come back to the well.

There isn’t a Rush album I dislike. I’m not keen on a couple, particularly their first three (which tend more towards the 70’s Led Zeppelin sound, mostly as imitator), but I like them all. My favorites are the early 80’s records—Grace Under Pressure, Signals—and the most recent two.

Snakes and Arrows might even be my favorite. It came at the perfect time: since one always imagines their life during college as the present (at least, I always think it’s 2007), Snakes and Arrows was my record of that year. It was a beautiful, brilliant album that showed old dudes could still rock the fuck out.

Now, we have Clockwork Angels. And while I’ve made fun of it for its ludicrous concept (it’s effectively a China Mieville novel set to music, conceptually), how long its taken, and all number of reasons, it’s here now.

And it’s really, really, really good. Three really’s good. Adverbially good.

The thing about it is, a lot of “concept albums” are terrible. Just ludicrously bad. They take on stories that aren’t personal, and they struggle for it: music is very much a personal medium, designed to tell the author’s story. It’s by necessity first person, and someone has to tell that story, to us, as the character. It’s why most concept albums are cheesy: the band either needs to put on a character themselves, or they have to act out someone else’s story.

Clockwork Angels almost falls into that crater. The title track, especially, leans heavily on a created steampunk mythology: yes, we know this is a record taking place in another universe, but really, we’re not moved there. Where the record shines, however, is in its last two songs, its middle. Even Headlong Flight, a song nominally about “flying an airship across the sky”, doesn’t fall into the tropey trap of concept. It’s telling a story, but the story still feels more like Neil Peart’s than it does some fictional protagonist. The line before the one about the airship, about “standing with fire on the big steel wheels” doesn’t bring to mind a fantasy protagonist but Peart’s well-publicized (to Rush fans) motorcycle trip across the country in the wake of tragedy.

The last two songs, Wish Them Well and The Garden, extrapolate on this. I’ve stayed up far too late to listen to this record to hear those two tracks again. Because they aren’t songs about a Watchmaker, or about Anarchists (though that song, in particular, rocks despite fantasy tropes), or about Carnies, or anything fantastic. They’re songs about growing old; they’re songs about realizing your place in the world. They’re songs about realizing the world is a colorful place full of people who think different things. It’s about realizing the best you can do is wish other people well and go your own way.

These aren’t fantasy tropes. These are things a song by a sixty year old man who’s lived a full, incredible life should be about. It’s why The Garden, a song looking back on “the measure of a life” feels like what could become a capstone to a brilliant career instead of the end of an album about clockwork gods: it’s a song by a songwriter about his own life.

In short, it’s probably their most poignant song since The Pass (which is really the defining Rush song, in my eyes: it’s one of my favorite songs from them off the album of theirs, Presto, that I probably like the least. It also has Available Light, which would also be on a hypothetical top ten list. And a bunch of crap). Here, listen to it! Ignore the utterly atrocious album cover. Please. My god, it’s terrible. That’s the one bad thing I can say about this album. But the song is the thing!

To tie all of it to writing, this is what they mean by “writing what you know”. It’s not writing just places you’ve seen, characters you’ve known, but instead connecting them to yourself. It’s not making a character a Maximilian Sue (the male, extremely fancy equivalent of a Mary Sue, of course), but to touch on the core of my personal experience through their own. None of the characters in my novel represent me in any direct way, but they share my hopes, my dreams, my preconceptions. Aloysius shares my political views, Esme my “alignment”, Quinn my ideals, Yannick my fears and my aspirations for myself, Mare my situation. They’re small bits, but they’re kernels of personal, authorial truth hidden inside each character. They’re aspects I can explore in each of them, and they’re a framing method: Aly’s story is about his politics. Esme’s is about being the kind of person I want to be in the face of a difficult world; Quinn’s similarly. Yannick is about my apprehensions, my anxiety, and Mare’s is about the opposite of that, about where I am and want to be.

The thing is, though: this is how fantasy ought to work. Fantasy gives us a safe place to explore our issues, our problems, and our solutions. Instead of writing an anxiety filled piece about myself, twenty five, in rural America, depressed and alone, I extrapolate. I tell a good story, and I explore these aspects of my life through fictional analogues who have their own interests, ideas, and expectations.

And that’s what Clockwork Angels does. Instead of being a stale fantasy thing, it’s a story about a man coming to terms with the world around him, a man reconnecting. It’s something I’m trying to do, myself, through art, and it’s a lovely parallel that’s hot in my mind. It’s why I like these characters a lot more than my other characters: I’m freely throwing myself into them. I feel more in touch with Esme, a minority female career soldier, than I have with any of my characters who are in my exact situation. She has many differences from me, but she shares enough of my character—her stubbornness, her obsessive devotion to “the old ways”, her pragmaticism—that I can feel a part of scenes even though no character is particularly like me.

This has gone the introspective direction from the “album review” one, but let me affirm that this is a fantastic record I’ve already listened to way too much. Like every record by this band, it’s touched me in an unexpected way, and it’s helped me understand my own life better. Which is the mark of good music.

One Comment
  1. Tom, I enjoy your views on the album and the extrapolation to Neil’s life, although I am not sure I would go quite so personal as you do, but still, I can see your point. As a long time Rush fan, old enough to have bought the Zeppelin imitating first three albums when they were fresh on the album racks, I wonder if you see the irony of the album cover – it’s 9:12 or 2112 in military time.

    Clockwork Angels is really the retelling of 2112 from the perspective of an individual who accepts the management of the Watchmaker – in The Anarchist we meet the individual who in another parallel universe could have been the young man who finds the guitar in “Discovery.” In “The Anarchist” we listen to his sadness of not having control of his life . . . is he on the road to offing himself ala our hero in 2112. Meanwhile, the hero of Clockwork Angels is The Anarchists doppleganger; he accepts the world as created by The Watchmaker and, though tempted by the excitement of love, boat crashes, carnivals and city life, returns to the farm, because, as you say, he recognizes his place in the world and is, after seeing what else is out there, willing to commit to it.

    Every lyric has an element of Neil in it, but it would be unfair to not offer him some distance from his creations. It is a wonderful album – perhaps the best of their career.

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