Finally I am ready to offer my track-by-track review of Rush’s new album, Clockwork Angels.
For my general take on on the album, see my review for The Objective Standard. I think this is a terrific album, perhaps the best of Rush’s career. Anybody who’s remotely a Rush fan should buy it and give it a listen, and then another.
However, I recognize that Rush’s music is not as accessible to non-fans as is the typical rock album. Most hot singles today come and go. They have a fun riff, some fun lyrics, and people enjoy it, for about three months. And then it disappears, nobody cares about it, and few listen to it again.
Rush’s music is different. It’s more sophisticated, lyrically and compositionally. It requires multiple listening sessions to even fully “hear” a track, to notice its structure and texture. Not as many people will spend the time to listen to Rush’s music, but those who do often fall in love with it, and keep listening to it year after year.
In a hundred years, most rock bands of today will be forgotten. A few will be remembered. Rush will be among them.
That said, as with any album (by Rush or anybody else), I like some of the tracks more than others. My goal here is to rate the tracks. Those who just want a taste might want to purchase the best tracks individually.
As I discussed in my TOS review, this is a “concept album” in the sense that the songs tell a story, chronologically, of a man’s life in an alternate “steampunk” universe. You can’t understand the significance of some of the lyrics outside the context of that story. However, as Geddy Lee has said, each song is meant to stand on its own musically. Thus, while I strongly suggest that you buy the entire album and listen to it as an album, you can also enjoy tracks singly. Here my purpose is to suggest which are the strongest tracks.
Best Song: “Clockwork Angels”
I regard the title track, “Clockwork Angels” (the third track on the album), as the best song on the album. At 7:31 minutes, it’s the longest track, and it offers a range of styles within it.
Lyrically, the setting of the song is the Crown City. The protagonist of the story, a simple farm boy, is visiting the city for the for the first time, and he is dazzled by what he sees. The description that accompanies the lyrics offers his perspective: “I had seen many images of the city before, and Chronos Square, but nothing could convey the immensity—the heaven-reaching towers of the Cathedral of the Timekeepers, or the radiant glory of the Angels. . . bathed in the brilliant glow of the floating globes.”
In the beginning we hear chants and some vapory-sounding guitar. I imagine the cart rolling into the city. Then some really bold, rhythmic guitar takes over.
At the minute-eight mark, the song takes a slow turn. When I first heard this, I was disappointed; I was hoping for a more rocking track. But I think the idea is that the protagonist is a little taken aback by what he sees, and he’s trying to take it all in. The lyrics accompany: “High above the city square / Globes of light float in mid-air / Higher still, against the night / Clockwork angels bathed in light.”
Then at a minute-twenty-nine the song takes off, and this is where I start to really love the track. It is glorious, it is pounding, it is intense. Geddly Lee drives with the bass.
At two-sixteen, the song relaxes into the the refrain, ending, “The people raise their hands [toward the Angels] — As if to fly.” That takes us close to the three-minute mark. From there the song mostly builds on variations of the same material.
But then at the four-fifty mark, the song takes a very different turn, sounding loose, almost drunken. This lasts for nearly a minute. It’s a peculiar section, and I don’t love it musically, but I think what’s going on is that the protagonist is starting to let some of his disillusionment show through. The lyrics go, “Lean not upon your own understanding” / Ignorance is well and truly blessed”—hardly an inspiring thought.
But then the song recaptures its positive, uplifting spirit, its spirit of wonder. It is quintessential Rush. And I love it.
Several other tracks join “Clockwork Angels” in comprising the album’s best.
“Caravan” opens the album with the clanging of train bells. The opening lasts for nearly forty seconds, and then the song takes off with a bass-driven, off-beat riff. It’s great. Then at a minute-ten, the song offers its powerful refrain to the lyrics, “To the distant dream of the city / The caravan carries me onward / On my way at last.” It’s some of Rush’s best music.
“The Anarchist” is great, rollicking rock. To get an idea of why I think it tops the list, listen in at the 2:50 mark. The interplay here between Lifeson’s guitar and Peart’s pulsing drums is just magical. And then at 3:05 Lee’s bass joins the conversation more strongly.
“Carnies” begins as just another hard-rock song. But then at 0:57 it sprouts wings, and then at 1:22 it soars into this airy, contemplative space. I love the song’s mix of pounding rock and sweet melody.
“The Wreckers” has a pretty weak opening, but at sixteen seconds it begins an intriguing interplay between strummed guitar and bass. My understanding is that, in recording this, Lee and Lifeson switched instruments. This is followed by a wonderful, soul-wrenching refrain at fifty-eight seconds: “All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary / ’Cause sometimes the target is you.”
For pure, driving hard-rock genius, “Headlong Flight” is a must-purchase. Plus, I love this song lyrically: “Some days were dark . . . / Some nights were bright / I wish that I could live it all again.”
“The Garden” closes the album perfectly. It is far and away Rush’s best “slow song,” carried by acoustic guitar and Lee’s soulful voice. The refrain (at a minute-twelve) is beautiful musically and lyrically: “The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect. . .”
Look, don’t get me wrong, I love all the tracks. But these are relatively weak ones, in my book. Of course, Rush’s weaker tracks are still loads better than most bands’ best tracks, so this is relative.
I enjoy “BU2B,” and it’s a good hard-rock song, but to me the music just isn’t quite as compelling and interesting as with other tracks.
“Halo Effect” is a fine slower song, but nothing about it makes me want to tag it as top-tier.
You can tell right away that “Seven Cities of Gold” is going to be a groovy song. I like it quite a lot, but it seems too repetitive to me, and little about it stands out. I have to say, though, that there’s some fantastic bass work starting at the four-minute mark; Lee grooves out.
“BU2B2” is more of an interlude than a song. It ably conveys the protagonist’s sense of anguish at this point in his life.
I quite like “Wish Them Well” musically and lyrically, but it’s not a stand-out to me. The theme is that you can’t get caught up with those who wish to tear you down.
By my reckoning, then, a person could get the “best of Clockwork Angels” by purchasing seven of the tracks.
But, as noted, even the relatively “weaker” tracks are still pretty good.
Plus, the album artwork is exceptional for this album, and it also tells more of the story than is revealed in the lyrics.
So there are several good reasons to get the entire album, even if you’re not a lifelong Rush fan.
On a personal note, I’d like to thank the guys of Rush for making this album. It’s amazing, and arguably Rush’s best album ever. I’m impressed by their long-lasting passion and drive to make the best music they possibly can.