Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Concept albums are usually, by their nature, overwhelmed by grandiosity. Rare is the concept album that tells a poignant story without any extraneous material. Then again, serving the story is rarely the entire purpose of a concept album. It's usually much vaguer than that. More accurately, the story is really serving a mood or a theme. So if the story of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is inscrutable (and it often is), it's beside the point. The plot, characters, settings, all serve to further the feeling of listening to their story. Or, as in the case of The Lamb, listening to and watching the story, as this album is really impossible to separate from the stage show Genesis toured with after its release.

Reading through the libretto of The Lamb, and a very handy track-by-track analysis of the album on, it becomes apparent that its accompanying stage show was planned hand-in-hand with the album it supported. Instrumentals toward the end of the double LP were added just to facilitate changes in Peter Gabriel's elaborate costumes for the tour. So, absent being able to see the show (except for clips and images of the costumes, which really are bizarre), one is left to judge the album knowing it's part of a whole.

Listening to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is quite an experience. The music is expansive, complex, and often impressive. The shortfalls particular to concept albums are present here, but this album tends to succeed more often than not because it mitigates the shortfalls by shifting its strengths over its course. Like a lot of prog rock, much of the album's music can devolve into frantic, high-speed instrumentalism. In those moments it's usually the story or the melody that rescue the listener from the chaos. At the album's conclusion, the instrumental fury serves to represent the rushing rapids the protagonist is swimming against to rescue his brother (don't ask.) Likewise, the performances by the band are uniformly excellent throughout the album, rescuing tracks where either the story or the melody could have lost interest. Most impressive are Tony Banks' keyboards, which can be counted on to reliably arpeggiate the hell out of whatever song they're playing.

Though the story never resonates on a deep enough level to inspire truly emotional response to the music, it doesn't mean individual moments aren't triumphant. "The Carpet Crawlers" is probably Genesis' finest song in my opinion. A subtle and subdued song (again, arpeggiated the crap out of by Banks), Gabriel's melody builds to places of real beauty. His repeated Broadway motif also stands out, when performed in both the opening title track and the late semi-reprise that recalls it, "The Light Dies Down on Broadway." "The Chamber of 32 Doors" is another stand-out track largely because it eschews the overactive prog rock sound. It favors a grander, open sound. Representing a moment in the story when the protagonist, Rael, is trapped in a crowded room tasked with finding the one door that leads out, Genesis plays counter to the claustrophobia with big chords and spare simplicity as Gabriel sings through his predicament. It's a real highlight, and closes the first disc with a great "to be continued..." moment.

Where the story gets incoherent, it's right about where Rael gets trapped in a ritualistic cycle involving sacrificial snake-woman hybrids and the only escape from it is castration, which he agrees to but has his removed organ (preserved in a yellow tube for him to wear around his neck in case he needs it again) stolen by a raven and dropped over a cliff into raging waters below. Why Peter Gabriel found these flights of fancy to be evocative (or precisely what they are intended to evoke), I don't know. I imagine drugs would help elucidate my confusions. It's The Lamb's unrelatable story that prevents it from scoring higher marks, but I suppose it wouldn't be prog rock if it wasn't indecipherable to the masses. As a story, The Lamb is more odd than good.

As an album, however, the combination of Gabriel's evocative poetry and the music the band crafted manages to succeed as greater than the sum of its parts. The two impulses in play, the bizarre storytelling and the impressive instrumentals, work hand in hand to save each other from overexposure. For all its failures and missed opportunities along the way, The Lamb still represents remarkable ambition, the likes of which are rarely seen in popular music. That's the appeal of the album, at it's core. This, the concept album, prog rock; it's ambition that rescues and preserves them. It may not be my favorite album of all-time, but damned if I don't think it's trying harder than just about any album I can think of. For that, I'm grateful.

(Note: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is unavailable for streaming through Lala. However, some of its tracks have been featured on anthologies and can be found by searching Lala for them by name.)


JimG said...

Very incisive, Jonah. I like how you connect the album to the qualities of prog rock, situating the album on the larger musical map.

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