Years passed before Rush reconvened following the brutal series of tragedies that befell Neil Peart between 1997 and 1998 that resulted in the loss of his entire family. Those questing years of his served the common, greater good of an immersion in life following the intensity of grief. In these times, we are raw, torn open, our nerve endings exposed to the winds of the world; it feels as though death cloaks us, and that which took our loved ones out of the wild blue is stalking behind lampposts and creeping shadows, waiting to take us too. This is a true thought, causing us to endure greater weight than we can often bear, and which can lead us to a kind of severity toward the world that rubs strangely against the seeming lightness and frivolity of most. It is a necessary weight, but one that can just as easily disfigure as it can enlighten, bringing as much callousness and bitter indifference as it can bring compassion and a deeper sense of joyful love. It was by the end of those questing years that Neil encountered Carrie Nuttall, an American photographer; they struck up a friendship, then a relationship, and shortly thereafter married. This sense of life returning to him, that all was not lost, that life through pain and joy both ebbs ever onward, seemed to rejuvenate Neil Peart. In 2001, he tentatively reached out to his bandmates Geddy and Alex to get together and see if the spark was still there. In 2002, Vapor Trails was released.
It’s frustrating that Vapor Trails doesn’t have more spark, all things considered. That would certainly have been a great narrative flourish, a returning Rush after years of uncertainty and wandering, the solo records made by Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee and the burgeoning writing career of Peart, all uncertain of their future together, culminating in a record that might be crowned among their very best. This was not the case. It is not, thankfully, that Vapor Trails is a bad record; across its span are a number of tracks that are quite well executed, such as “Ghost Rider,” “Earthshine” and album closer “Out of the Cradle” among others. Even the lesser tracks are never bad, instead feeling more like the jamming of friends rather than the emotionally weighty but delicately arranged hard rock, pop-rock and prog the group was primarily known for.
Part of this is admittedly nothing to do with the tragedies between this record and the last, mostly having to do with the songwriting direction already underway as of the group’s previous record. Strains of The Who are more dominant across Vapor Trails as well as the influence of the group’s own debut record. There seemed to be a desire within Rush to tap more fully into those motivating forces that compelled them to pick up their instruments in the first place. This, it turns out, is a proper narrative flourish for the story of the band, reuniting and testing the waters with each other not with grand desires to dethrone their former mighty glories but instead to rediscover that youthful love of the pure joy of making music together. Vapor Trails reads less like a set of songs meant to achieve some great careerist goal, instead documenting a group of three friends celebrating each other and the lives they happened into. This sense of joy propels the record in places it might otherwise have lagged and makes it soar in its greater moments.
A line like “Did I have the dream, or did the dream have me?” may strike you as silly and #deep, but in the context of lifelong musicians reflecting back on the sacrifices that life demanded, of years away from family when that same family died suddenly and whether those sacrifices make any sense following that, it takes on a different and more serious weight. This arc is present across the record, furthering Peart’s shift from broad philosophical lyrics that overshot their capacity for tighter and more deeply personal ruminations, finding a greater sense of purpose and power given how strongly rooted they are to real lived experience. A line like “Sunset on the road behind / sunset on the road ahead,” an obvious allusion to the way our lives are strung between the two dark nonexistences of prebirth and postdeath, a brief gasp, lands differently when it is delivered by someone reflecting from the brink of tremendous grief. That sense of causation, that these are not the morbid ponderances of ambitious goth teens but the serious considerations of adults who have experienced tremendous loss and are left wondering how or even why to put things back together makes the thoughts land more solidly. These are no longer broad social posturings by young men ultimately still trying to figure out the world; these are the thoughts of grown men who have found that those greater questions of life and our purpose, both for ourselves and for one another, remain darkly unresolved even as life ticks on, even when we need the sureness of those answers the most. There ultimately is no answer to death or to grief. There is only surrender.
Vapor Trails takes part in the retroactively mystifying trend of rock bands at the time to forgo guitar solos entirely, focusing instead on orchestrated parts and layering rather than the sharpness, angularity and indulgence often associated with soloing. Groups like Metallica found their efforts in these arenas struggling to connect with longtime fans, seemingly having forgotten the contributions to pacing and structuring things like guitar solos offer. Rush, while featuring one of the most capable rock guitar soloists of all time, had always been defined primarily by their songwriting acumen and so the lack of guitar solos across the span of Vapor Trails, while deeply mourned, doesn’t sink the proceedings. At best, this decision brings a sharper focus to the tremendous riffing and orchestral elements to Lifeson’s playing; a later total remix of the record, now its only available version, would also boost the presence of lead guitar parts previously buried behind noise, further bridging the gap toward more traditional solo moments. At worst, this lack of solos plays into one of the keen weakness of Vapor Trails: its length.
Despite their early track record of side-long tracks, Rush had never been a band to press the lengths of studio records, hovering comfortably within the roughly 40-minute golden span of records of their era. This sense of internal album pacing followed them even into the CD era; where their peers would enter the wild blue yonder of the digital age with overstuffed 70-minute albums rippling with flab, Rush pushed their average runtime up only a mere 10 minutes (or, in other words, two songs), retaining the sharpness of a side A/side B sense of pacing to structure the span of their albums. Vapor Trails meanwhile sees its runtime inflated spontaneously to 67 minutes, making it the longest record of their career. While they would stay within eyeshot of this length for almost the full span of this final arc of their career, their sense of how to structure that amount of time would grow stronger, dividing it into more discrete sections than a mere two-act structure. On this first outing in those spans, however, they find themselves lost in the weeds a bit midway through.
It’s a forgivable sin. In a perfect world, where texts are permanently alienated from the contextualizing enclosure of the world and history that surround them, this would be a more damning critique of the record. But we do not live in this world of mere atoms devoid of relation; Vapor Trails was the first record made by a trio of lifelong friends following the spontaneous near-total devastation and just as spontaneous half-miracle/half-great labor resuscitation of one of them. These songs were kept in part, one can sense, because they no longer wanted to take for granted that there would always be more time to work on them. Likewise, there was a sense of pleasure and gratitude within the fanbase that matched this on a human level. They did not need to be the greatest songs the group ever penned. What mattered was that Rush was back, that healing was not only possible but carried out, that love and joy had won.
If anything, this lack of careerist motive to Vapor Trails becomes a hidden strength. There is a pureness and sincerity to it, its lyrics drawn from Peart’s journals during his long motorcycle ride as he reflected on the cruel spontaneity of death and the inexplicable mystery of brief life, a life so suffused with pain and loss but likewise the only one we are given. That the songs exist to celebrate Rush celebrating themselves, celebrating their friendship and bond with one another more than a desire to reconquer the charts or win back critical acclaim, feels like a pure image of their hearts. This, in turn, is what has always made we Rush fans love them. That the record was initially released in a brickwalled and nearly unlistenable mix only to be fixed years later feels like a fitting narrative flourish to this troubled but still warming record.
This marked the first instance in the band’s history that violated their previous ironclad organizational rule of one live record for every four studio albums. The motivation to finally violate this unspoken clause feels self-evident; given all that had transpired between Test for Echo and Vapor Trails, the band was no longer in the enterprise of taking anything for granted. There seemed to be a pressing need to both expand their touring itinerary to the final places in the world they had not yet visited as well as to document each tour, having acquired a kind of band-oriented death consciousness in their brief hiatus. It became fitting that the live record captured on this tour was done so in Rio de Janeiro on the first South American tour in their career, capturing a nearly three-hour set spanning their full career in only their second “Evening With” formatted tour featuring two full sets plus encore from the band as opposed to opening groups.
This live record was additionally my first serious re-engagement with the works of Rush following a childhood of having written them off, annoyed as I was with songs like “Closer to the Heart” and unmoved as I was by “2112.” Following the insistence of my friend Bleys, a rabid fan of the group, that I had totally misunderstood them and overlooked their most fruitful period (the ’80s work, his favorite), I went to the store and grabbed the first release of theirs that caught my eye. I was in the midst of a concert DVD phase, having only recently seen Pink Floyd’s seminal Live from Pompeii the previous year and having torn through the entire body of Peter Gabriel live videos available at the time, along with the more obvious ones like Iron Maiden and other heavy metal heroes. My relative ignorance toward the tracklist and the eras it graced was my salvation; I inadvertently got a survey of the entirety of the group’s history up to that point performed in a phase of the band’s career where a rockist heft was laid behind even their most proggy and poppy material, revealing the hard rock-driven skeleton that girded their playing. This allowed me to be caught fully by cuts I had never heard, such as “The Big Money,” “The Pass,” “Red Sector A” and others, all to become figureheads on my very favorite albums by the group. I watched it the first time in my friend Jeremy’s bedroom with my girlfriend at the time; she grew bored and drove herself home while I meanwhile found myself alchemically transformed, emerging as if from a silver cocoon following those three magical hours now baptized as a rabid Rush fan. It was only off of the back of Rush in Rio that I came to love the band the way I since have, and I only even gave it a chance due to the instigations of my friend Bleys. The amount I owe both are inestimable to me now.
It is in keeping with this grand project then that Rush’s next record was a collection of covers titled Feedback. The arc of their sonic development had been gesturing further and further back, a deliberate deevolution of the group on an inward journey of rediscovery, and a record of this nature seemed inevitable. The groups covered across the record is a who’s who of ’60s rock, from Buffalo Springfield to the Yardbirds to the Who, Love and Cream. Perhaps a shock to fans of the band who associate them mostly with heavy metal theatrics and progressive rock was the near-total lack of sounds as thunderous or roaming as those, unless if you count the proto-metal of Blue Cheer and Cream or the proto-prog of the psychedelia in Love.
This touches on a consistent misconception both of Rush and of prog rock in general, both by outsiders and of fans. Rush emerged as young players during the dawn of progressive rock, witnessing as ambitious teens as players advanced through the keen pop, folk and psychedelic swirls available to them as effects pedals and focused practice time advanced them through potential sounds. Prog and heavy metal then both emerged as ways of continuing to chase those earlier impulses, of bridges in songs that spanned more musical territory, of verses that had greater and greater difference between one another, weaving vaster and vaster tapestries with more and more dynamic arcs of sound. To the outsider receiving these songs, prog becomes a set of sounds and images, capes and 19-minute long songs about dragons and magical fountains. But for the players, it was always an extension of impulses already there, something non-competitive with their similar urges toward pop, folk, and simple rock ‘n’ roll that had always motivated them. In this mindset, the way so many prog bands turned toward pop-rock (Rush included) makes much more sense; it was not a sonic retreat for them because these ideas were always bundled up together and directed toward the same goal. This seeming regression on the part of Rush on Feedback was less about the false purity of nostalgia and more about rediscovery, not unlike the movement of “2112,” retreating behind the waterfall to retrieve something they had lost contact with.
It is a pure joy that their playing sounds so much more motivated and forceful here than even on Vapor Trail a few years earlier. The time together in the studio and on the road seemed to do the trick, assured them that the desire was still there, the spark still alive, and potential still to be tapped. Freed of the burden of having to create songs, Rush were able to tap more purely into both their love of the material and their deeper love of playing together. That these songs are also the right mix of well-known but not overdone allowed them to take certain liberties in sections, cut loose and dig in, while playing a bit more straight and with a keen ear to learn in other spans. Feedback breathes and bleeds with a sense of profound respect, one that feels like a joyful surprise coming from a trio of legends. Released in relatively limited quantities, in part to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the band’s debut, it was only available on their R30 anniversary tour. It was met with lukewarm to negative reviews on release; for many critics, they sneered at the attempts of a band known for prog-rock snobbery and Randian pretension to situate themselves among the rock greats of the 60s, while for many fans it felt like another confounding move from a band that seemed to have lost all sense of why people loved them in the first place, being neither hi-tech synthetic alloys of pop, prog and heavy metal nor the complex prog tapestries of their highest period.
Both understandings of Feedback are faulty, premised on two sides of ultimately the same false understanding of Rush. For every “2112,” there had always been a “Twilight Zone,” for every “Hemispheres” a “Circumstances”; even in their synth period, they gestured to the vastness and hooks of pop as much as the weight and physicality of rock and dance music. This is in part why the ’90s period of Rush ultimately feels more synchronous with the interior of the motivations of their music than either the prog rock late ’70s or synth rock ’80s. In turn, this is why the syncretic and backward-gazing and celebratory final phase of Rush’s career strikes deepest at this secret heart. Lee has always maintained that “Working Man” is his favorite Rush song and the first instance of the band being itself over anyone else, nestled in among the Zeppelin, Cream and Black Sabbath worship of their debut. Feedback is best conceived as a serious undertaking to reconnect meaningfully with that initiating pulse of the group’s music, starting not at the beginning but before. It calls to mind a quote from famed prog/jazz drummer Bill Bruford, who once said, “If you want to play like me, don’t copy my records; copy the people I copied.”
This process of self-rediscovery, one not uncommon for artists once they reach a certain age or maturity, is appealing and so frequent precisely because it’s a way for them to self-evaluate the arc of their creative impulse. The process of a career in art, let alone life, is one where we can often only see the ground directly beneath us. There is a definitional opacity to the future, one where seismic changes like punk or grunge can emerge like bolts from the blue obliterating the paths and structures of the known in a heartbeat. But despite the occasional thought otherwise, gazing backwards truthfully is often nigh-on impossible. We see things as the actors within these stories that those outside do not; Rush naturally find certain moments, experiences, and impulses more foundational, motivating and salient to their development and story than those outside. A life-changing concert for a concertgoer can be a Tuesday to the performer, while the transcendent moment for those on stage can be a tedious bore to a supportive significant other dragged along into the audience.
The act of copying their own influences, returning to the texts that drew them to instruments in the first place, naturally achieves a more syncretic approach of reckoning with the fullness of a career of creative work. The way Rush played these songs in 2004 was not identical to how they would have played them 40 years earlier; there are inflections, approaches to their instruments and to arrangement, that emerged only through a career of music, such that the material is three-quarters a reconstituted initiating urge and one-quarter a view of everything that has changed. Its greatest function is not to serve itself, but to gesture toward that other, greater thing: a second “debut” record, one developed and recorded in the same spirit as their 1974 debut but imbued with the lessons learned over the fullness of time. But first they had to get through another world tour and live record release first.
Snakes & Arrows
When they finally set about to write and record Snakes & Arrows, it was with this renewed sense of connection to both the modes and mindset of their earlier work. They tapped Nick Raskulinecz to produce largely because of his desire to do as much recording live off the floor as possible. This was done to capture the looser heavy rock and classic rock modes they had been getting back under their fingertips as far back as Roll the Bones but with the renewed energy and insight gained from the recording and touring of a covers EP. The resulting album is unsurprisingly their most “classic rock” of all of their material, a sound they managed to largely avoid aside from their debut, veering quickly into their hybrid of progressive rock and heavy metal before incorporating the various stylistic divergences the 80s would bring them. This led initially to a shaky response to Snakes & Arrows from longtime fans, if not necessarily by critics; there was a sense among the fandom of the band almost having retreated away from their unique sounds and flavors into what felt to some as a more “legacy rock band” pastiche. Ironically, this was a direct parallel to similar criticisms the band had faced when streamlining and reorienting their sound in the ’80s as well as in the ’90s and that recurrence indicates about how trustworthy a critique it is here given how inaccurate and misapprehending it was in those previous instances.
It’s better to view Snakes & Arrows through the lens of gratitude, celebration and legacy, those being the overriding tones of this period of their career. If Vapor Trails was a celebration of friendship and their musical will’s endurance, and Feedback was them celebrating their roots, then Snakes & Arrows was them celebrating their origin. It’s worth returning to the point of Lee’s insistence that “Working Man” is perhaps his favorite song of their body of work even if it’s not necessarily the most indicative of some internal Rush-ness better perceived in tracks such as “Cygnus X-1” and “Tom Sawyer.” In a certain way, Rush’s ambition robbed them, pushing them to accelerate past making a record to stand among their own heroes and instead living immediately among their peers and those they would one day inspire. Snakes & Arrows in that light completes the present function of the ongoing experiment of the final phase of their career. They knew the end was closer than it was further away; the tragedies of Peart’s life still weighed on them as a stark reminder of the preciousness of time and the wear and tear of both the trails of performing lengthy sets as well as time away from family beginning to wear on them all. Having rekindled the flame, the next act was to “re-debut” in a sense, to make a record that filled the same function as their first but through the lens of the fullness of time and a career of lesson’s learned. Snakes & Arrows is not devoid of proggy flourish, either; tracks such as the opener “Far Cry” as well as the dark and winding King Crimson-esque “Spindrift” show more than a fair share of explicit progginess while instrumentals such as “The Main Monkey Business” have a tautness to them that belies their tremendous instrumental gifts.
I’ll admit a bias here; this was the first Rush album I purchased on the day of release, coming shortly after my obsessive binge-watching of Rush in Rio over and over as I fell deeply in love with the band. However, I think it is precisely this vantage point, of experiencing this record without the burden of expectation or desire shaped by decades of fandom and attachment to certain sounds, that allowed me to approach this record with fresher ears. In an era where we see groups such as Van Halen and AC/DC releasing strong records of their signature style late in their career, where groups such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden can prove themselves continuously virile through strong showings despite their advancing ages and lengths of careers, we have come better to terms with approaching contemporary work from a legacy group on its own merits first before attempting to situate it in context among their vaster body of work. Progressive rock fans, meanwhile, are a peculiar sort; as much as we value forward-thinking sonic adventurism in a certain sense, we likewise fall into a tremendously conservative sonic sensibility, being endlessly happy aping the sounds of Genesis and Yes forever but balking at a band’s interior evolution as somehow an “abandonment” of some unspoken principle. Though I was deeply invested in progressive rock by this point, my understanding and adoration of Rush was founded more on their songcraft and performance, the way they added hard rock girth and grit and humanity to their approach of progressive and pop rock. Through this lens, tracks such as “Armor and Sword,” “Faithless” and “Good News First” are deeply satisfying, feeling iterative on the forms and shapes of classic rock but with a sharpness and clarity of language that I associate now with Rush’s particular approach.
Snakes & Arrows likewise makes more sense held against records such as Counterparts and Presto, albums long-maligned by portions of Rush’s own fanbase but (as I’ve previously stated) esteemed by me. In each instance, the focus is more on keen songcraft appended by the warmth and humanity of live instrumentation. In a certain sense, the beefy organic recordings that Raskulinecz was able to capture provided for the song-oriented material on Snakes & Arrows what the band sought but did not find in Presto and Roll the Bones, albums both noted by the band as sounding and feeling thinner than they did either in the studio or in a live setting. One has to imagine the increased touring schedules, lengthier sets as well as more frequent live recordings of the group contributed to this push as well; Snakes & Arrows suddenly provided an opportunity to tie up a number of dangling threads in the band’s lifespan, from wanting a proper followup to their debut to delivering on the promise and intent of their early ’90s material to furthering the overall project of this final legacy-oriented period of the band’s career all at once. That it did so with strong songs that could stand comfortably and mightily among their heroes of late ’60s and early ’70s rock as much as their own catalog is a cherry on top.
The release of Snakes & Arrows saw a landmark amount of touring by the band that resulted in not one but two live records, a first for the band for an interstitial period. The first live record, Snakes & Arrows Live, covered the over 100-date Snakes & Arrows tour proper while the second, Time Machine 2011: Live in Cleveland, covered the second tour the band underwent before their next and final studio record, this time focused on a full-album playthrough of Moving Pictures in celebration of its 30th anniversary. The primary interest to fans of the Time Machine Tour, however, was not so much that but primarily as the live debut of two new tracks that would wind up being the opening set of songs on their final, then-untitled studio record Clockwork Angels. These two tracks, “Caravan” and “BU2B,” seemed to strongly indicate a concept record in its proper form, no longer either just a sidelong suite critically mislabeled as a concept record despite not being the full record itself nor the more abstract conceptual theming the band had pursued on records such as Power Windows, Counterparts and others. The band at the time would deny this, despite the tracks specific strange references to things such as “the Watchermaker” and “steam-liners roll[ing] by.” Their denial, as it turns out, would be a ruse.
Clockwork Angels is the final Rush record in every sense of the word. There is a sense in the lyrics, the structure of the record and its various intertextual nods to the shapes and sounds and colors of the group’s entire career that this was intended as a potential final statement. The album’s concept feels at once a hybrid of the same type of fantastical/science fictional thematics the group would play at in lengthier tracks such as “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” “The Necromancer,” “The Fountain of Lamneth,” “2112” and the “Cygnus X-1” suite but just as much the autobiographical commentaries of Signals. The plot of the record, stripped of its fantastical steampunk trappings, is of a young man who departs for the city to begin his new life, attempting to shed the burdens of belief and understanding of the structures of the world he was given. He seeks to rebel largely against the collectivist authoritarianism, as he sees it, of the crude monotheistic parallel of the Watchmaker, a system in which he has been raised to live and work on a farm forever. But his journeys in opposition to these forces leads him to join up with a carnival and the anarchists found there, committing himself to essential a form of radical libertarianism that eventually reveals itself to be as shallow, violent, dogmatic and incapable of properly addressing the qualms and experiences of the common person as the Watchmaker he initially rose to rebel against. Worse, it seems driven by a souring bitterness, a black cynicism that renders an impossibility of love, a perpetual backward gaze to trauma and pain rather than ever possessing a rejoicing spirit of power. After meeting with the Watchmaker himself following a failed terrorist attack in which the Watchmaker explains both an understanding of the imperfections of his collectivist system but also the gentle caring heart of its founding, the main character finds himself disenchanted, neither able to rebel nor endorse any of the figures he’s seen. He returns to the garden he fled as a boy where he stays until the end of his life in reflection of the broader purpose of his life: to love and be loved, to seek to understand and be understood, and to nurture instead of wound.
This concept notable begins in the same manner of their previous unspoken concept record of Signals, with the opening tracks of that record beginning its character in suburban wastelands before contemplating and eventually carrying out escape to the city, a setup that is mirrored in the opening three tracks of Clockwork Angels. Likewise, the story presented in Clockwork Angels is less a purely fantastical one than it is a recoded autobiographical tale, much as how Signals was a concept record released roughly halfway through the career of the group exploring in allegory their growth as people through their gigging days into the relative-modernism of the ’80s. Clockwork Angels likewise feels like an older and wiser Neil Peart looking back at the arc of his life nearer its end than its beginning, offering a stark rebuke of his previous staunchly-held libertarianism but through the sympathetic lens of a man who has learned to forgive the idealism and naivety of his younger self. He notably does not have the character wind-up fully enthralled with the world he sought to rebel against either; instead Neil seems to comment more broadly on the imperfection of various systems to adequately solve the ills and troubles of the world, a worldly sensibility of his informed by his global travels both over Rush’s career as well as ones carried out in private by him. While he had specific observations in previous records that ran against the common narrative of him as an Objectivist right-winger, Clockwork Angels is a bleeding-heart repudiation of that image, presenting the highest ideal not as personal liberty and freedom but, notably, love and compassion, an altruistic yearning and open-hearted desire baldly incompatible with Ayn Rand and her ilk.
Musically, the record likewise acts as summation of Rush’s entire career. While many critics at the time of its release noted Clockwork Angel‘s sonic similarities to their late ’70s prog records, replete with open displays of heavy rock, heavy metal and odd time signatures, this ignores the sonic elements from elsewhere in their career that arrive across the record. In one place is a clean and angular guitar break more reminiscent of Lifeson’s ’80s work and tone; in others, a synth melody that transitions to a clean pop-rock approach reminiscent of their early ’90s material. The overall approach of Clockwork Angels sonically speaking is better understood through the lens of the other records of this final period of the band’s career. If Vapor Trails was their celebration of their lasting spark, a primal “pre-time” record, if Feedback represented a synthetic return to their gigging days of their youth, a time-zero, if Snakes & Arrows was almost a second debut in how it modeled a time-one, the eruption of Rush into the annals of history, then Clockwork Angels is everything after all in one place.
“Wish Them Well” evokes Presto as much as “BU2B” evokes A Caress of Steel and “Cygnus X-1,” a broad sonic approach applied across the entire span of the record. Clockwork Angels contains several songs around seven minutes in length, a far cry from their previous sidelong epics but perhaps closer to evoking the proto-epic form they explored with “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” on Fly By Night, fitting given that was Peart’s debut with the band. Likewise it features perhaps the heaviest song in their career with “BU2B” alongside the searing emotionalism of “The Wreckers” which resonates with a stoic darkness more akin to Grace Under Pressure or Roll the Bones stormy outlooks on the natural suffering of embodiment. In many ways, Clockwork Angels is the ultimate Rush album, the perfect summation not just of the end of this period of the band’s career but of the entirety of their career, lyrically, musically and personally. There may be other Rush records better preferred by certain fans or critics, but there is not one better Rush album to pick if there could only remain one, given that from Clockwork Angels you could plausibly birth the entire universe of Rush’s music anew, a feat singular to this record.
The apex of the record, both in a musical and lyrical sense, is in its ultimate track “The Garden”, the final track not just of the record but indeed of Rush’s entire career. The track, given its structural location closing the final record of the band’s entire career, takes on a great onus, one the group capitalizes on by imbuing it with a near-sacred earthly air not unlike Voltaire’s Candide, a primary influence on its lyrics. The song suddenly gestures backward sonically to “Different Strings” from Permanent Waves or “Tears” from 2112, unsung greats of the catalog, a rich a string-backed ballad surveying the path of a life from its end. This is a type of sentimentalism that can, in the wrong hands or at the wrong moment, be cloying and disastrously sweet, where something like Tuesdays With Morrie reads more like the death-skittishness of the still-living trying to console themselves about the transient nature of life and the stark and often brutal truth that that which remains in the wake of our passing are often painfully small.
“The Garden,” however, takes a smaller and gentler view, feeling often more like a grandparent who feels the firm materiality of memory slipping away to be replaced with a cruel but enlightening duality: that which remains is the present moment, be it of comfort or of pain, and the efforts we have made to nurture and show active love to those in our lives. It acts almost as a rejoinder to Warren Zevon’s life-ending song “Keep Me In Your Heart.” Peart’s pen, heavily slipping against the page not unlike his figure from “Losing It,” knowing well that time was at an end for the group even if his bandmates hadn’t quite grasped it yet, wrote not of the desire to be remembered or a desire for glory. In his final missive, Peart rebuked the central tenets of Ayn Rand, the woman with whom he had inadvertently stained his legacy many years prior. Instead, “The Garden” is driven by its central repeating lines: “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.” It likewise is a rebuke of the seeming flightiness and pretension he had been accused of, lyrically in that it focuses on the holy smallness and intimacy of human life and experience and musically in that it no longer feels driven by virtuosic feats of alacrity but instead a heart-wrenching, tear-jerking sure-fired arrow splitting the cords of the muscles of your heart.
This song in turns does not just close the record or even the band’s career, but Peart’s life work. He would write off and on on his website, small things that felt more like a gently waving epilogue. The band toured hard off of the back of Clockwork Angels, playing the album in its entirety backed by an orchestral ensemble, which produced a live album. They would then have one final world tour, the R40 tour, which would in turn generate a live record. They would close their career in California, closing their career by playing “Working Man” from their debut as well as a snippet of “Garden Road,” the first original song the group released as a single only. But these were closing gestures, the curtain call. The finale had already been penned in “The Garden.” It was a sensation palpable within the fandom and the critical world on the release of Clockwork Angels, an album which was released in 2012 and only saw touring for it fully conclude in 2015. Geddy and Alex would continue to insist off and on for a few years following that the band wasn’t done, merely resting. But the resolute quietness from Peart, their poet and pensman, said in silence what they were attempting to refute with words. It was done. It was as plain as the lyrics sheet for “The Garden,” a mirror title to “Garden Road,” their first ever recorded song. There was no other way for it all to end.
My response to the record on its release was, like many Rush fans, a mixed one. I credit my growing love for this album singularly to this eulogizing project, which has now taken a year of my life. I’ve read hundreds of interviews with the band, descriptions of gear, thoughts about composition, the varying strains of their influences over years, their responses to the world around them both as men growing in the public eye and as musicians and artists attempting to convey this unnameable thing inside them as best they could wherever they stood in history. My perspective on Clockwork Angels and its role has changed significantly through all of this. What once for me was among their worst (or, at least, least-listened records), coming above Vapor Trails and their debut and perhaps Fly By Night but not much else, now sits comfortably at or near the very top. There are facets to this album that I didn’t seem to notice, didn’t know how to look for, which now strike me brutally as I listen back to it. The line from “The Anarchist”‘s chorus, “an early promise that somehow die, / a missing part of me that grows around me like a cage“, seems to paint in two lines the primary angst of the entirety of my twenties as I struggled and finally overcame this life deficit and the rage and pain and anxiety I carried with me in it following my mental breakdown.
Lines and references within the record that before struck me as cloying or sentimentalist now leave me weak. But it’s “The Garden” that causes me, an album-oriented listener through and through, a resolute believer in the power of the intended sequence, to heavily press the repeat button, letting the song roll on and on for a half hour or more, sinking heavy into tears.
Neil Peart passed in early 2020. That was before COVID, before the close of the election, before the botched vaccine rollout. He passed in the midst of the wildfires ravaging Australia. This project has been on one level an attempt to eulogize him as fully and as resolutely as possible by paying keen critical attention to the whole of his creative legacy and life’s work. It’s genesis was originally to be the emergency second chapter of I’m Listening To Progressive Rock, vastly derailing the original outline of that project, but as the scope grew and our rising intent to pay honor to him as very best as we possibly ever could, it became this, a project that has spanned now a full year. I’m now doubly grateful for him in a way I could not have been prior to this; this long project was my rock and my anchor through the anxiety and isolation of the plague year of 2020, a constancy and a buoy. In death, even in death, Peart and his life’s work became a rock. The final work is now the length of a short book, something well-deserved. Punk and hip-hop and folk have long had projects, well-earned and well-composed, about the critical breadth of that work and the real tangible impact it had on human lives and human dreams. It is my hope that this has been something of similar repute and durability for Rush and for Neil Peart. This is my candle for you.
Rest in peace, Neil.
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Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.