Hark! The Clockwork Angels Sing!

Clockwork Angels is the sort of project I admire and envy. I’ve often dreamt of a project bridging music and narrative. Well, 2012 saw the collaboration of the prog-rock band Rush and speculative author Kevin J. Anderson. Neil Peart had wanted to work with Anderson for decades, and it was on this project that everything finally clicked (as noted in the novel’s endnotes). Both the novel and album  tell the same story, but through different media. So let’s look at each.

First of all, I should mention this is my first encounter with Anderson. I know he is an extraordinarily prolific author, but he’s one that just slipped through the cracks for me. I will say this for the novel: the story was stronger than the writing. Clockwork Angels is a hero’s journey story, the tale of young Owen Hardy. His life is quiet, safe, and pretty much mapped out from birth. The Watchmaker, a sort of benevolent dictator, has established The Stability that keeps everything safe and predictable. Of course, Owen finds himself dissatisfied, and soon falls in with circus carnies who embrace a wilder sort of life. Owen’s path crosses with The Anarchist, the Watchmaker’s nemesis, whose sole goal is to disrupt the Stability. Throughout the course of the novel, Owen bounces from one adventure to the next, being used as a pawn by both sides, until he is finally able to create– or realize his power to create– his own destiny. As a heroic adventure, and as a philosophical exploration, it is wholly successful.

That being said, the prose is rather…prosaic. Not every author needs to be Cormac McCarthy or Michael Chabon, but Anderson’s prose is littered with over-explanation and telling rather than showing. A typical passage might run like this:

At the man’s refusal, Owen hung his head and sighed. He was very disappointed that the man rejected his offer.

The second sentence is unnecessary, as if readers need an explanation for every gesture (we don’t).

I don’t wish to imply that the novel was boring or unpleasant to read. It was quite a fun adventure. I was just a little disappointed that the grandeur of Rush’s album and music was lost in such unadorned prose.

Another shortcoming of the novel is that the story is driven by Idea. Specifically, the battle between Order and Chaos, and Owen must find his own way between the two. As such, it’s a novel of Ideas and Philosophy, rather than Character or Story. The characters’ depth really ends at their roles as symbols rather than as people. Owen is the only character to acquire much depth, but again, it is a depth of symbolism rather than of psychology or emotion.

One of the most pleasurable parts of reading the novel was detecting the Rush references that Anderson sprinkled throughout the story. He drops names of songs and albums all over the place, and this makes the novel more than a standalone book; it makes it a gift to the readers and fans. I was going to make a list of all the references I found, but in the endnotes, Peart suggests that some sort of contest for readers may lie in the future. And far be it from me to give anyone a leg up on that opportunity…

As I stated before, Clockwork Angels is Rush’s first concept album. And it’s a challenging listen. The music continues in the direction it has followed in the past decade– harder rock sound, darker lyrics, and more focused lyrics. By “challenging,” I mean there is no apparent single that standouts. No “Tom Sawyer,” no “Subdivisions,” nothing I’d expect on the radio. Instead, the quality is spread throughout the album.

There are some albums that have immediate impact on the listener. Some need two or three listens to get into. Clockwork Angels required eight or ten. But now, I can’t get it out of me. Reading novel greatly increases appreciation for the songs. The driving, pulsing rhythm of “Caravan,” the angry, big guitar swagger of “BU2B.” On the other hand, the album also carries melodic, gentler tracks like “The Wreckers” that ache with regret and bitterness. The knockout track here is “The Garden,” the closer, which provides us with complete catharsis and retrospect.

Musically, another shift listeners might notice is in Geddy Lee’s voice. No doubt, his voice is distinctive– high, chirpy, and to some, grating. Well, whether the result of stylistic choice or of age, his voice has come down out of the stratosphere (without losing its power). If you want to give CA a try but can’t bear to listen to an hour of Lee singing, give it a try. His voice is lower but no weaker, and more nuanced than in the past.

This may get me drawn and quartered by Rush fans, but I’ve found a number of Rush song’s lyrically disappointing. When Peart has an axe to grind, his songs come off more like essays, and frankly, I don’t listen to music to be taught or lectured. I listen to them to experience story or emotion. Thus, songs like “Freewill” or “Nobody’s Hero” don’t do much for me. They lack the grace or imagery that I want to see in song lyrics. I don’t think all Rush lyrics are like this. “2112” is pure story (saturated though it is in philosophy), and “Subdivisions” has  a big axe to grind, but is delivered with striking imagery. Even Snakes and Arrows, which is loaded with anger at social injustice, is written with nuance and style.

So we come to CA, and of course as a concept album, it’s all about story. Yet, as mentioned above, the story is largely Idea driven, Extreme Order vs. Extreme Chaos. And that’s what makes this album so remarkable to me, that it is so philosophical, and yet has a nuance and grace that it might not have been written twenty or thirty years ago.

And that’s why I declare this album an utter success. It’s not an easy listen, it’s not something you can pop in and be amazed by the radio-friendly tracks, but give it several listens, and you may find it to be some of Rush’s most potent and gracefully executed music they have ever written.

So in recap: The novel: great story, hampered by mediocre prose. The album: not Rush’s most accessible work, but some of their best.

Side note: This story could make a fantastic film. The story is there, and the imagery potential (think of all those clocks and gears and steamships…) is boundless. You hear that, studios? Get on it, already…

UPDATE: A draft of this blog post was written before the EXCELLENT news that Rush was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. Congratulations to the R&R Hall of Fame for finally getting it right!

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