Twin Peaks: The Return (The Parts and the Music)

There’s no way I could have done this ranking back in September of 2017. The eighteen parts of Twin Peaks: The Return are segments of a single cinematic canvass that take multiple viewings to get a clear handle on. I watched The Return for my third time this September, and, well, it’s finally time. Keep in mind that there are no “bad” episodes here, only those which are “less mighty” than the ones above it. The Roadhouse musical performances follow separately.

1. What is Your Name? (Part 18). Just when things seem to get resolved in Part 17, the narrative dives and drops us into this desolate finale. It freaked me out like nothing else Lynch has ever done, not even in Fire Walk With Me, and there’s still endless debate as to what happens here. At the end of Part 17, Cooper went back in time to save Laura Palmer from being killed; then she vanished into an Odessa-Texas alternate reality. But who sent her there? The demon-mother Judy, or by the benevolent Fireman in order to bait and trap Judy? (The former view is defended here; the latter here.) I believe most of the evidence favors the former, and that there is no victory over Judy at the end. The finale channels Lost Highway with its long night drives, and blurring of identities during the act of sex, and there is yet another History of Violence homage (the first being in Part 7) in the restaurant where Cooper shows down a trio of assholes single-handedly. But it’s the dread of watching “Carrie Page”, not knowing she’s Laura, yet knowing on some level that she is, that builds and builds to a crescendo, clamping our hearts in a vise, until that final terrible scream.

2. Gotta Light? (Part 8). This modern-TV masterpiece summons the unnerving dread of Eraserhead and the otherworldly awe of Malick’s Tree of Life and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here we get the genesis of Bob and birth of Laura, each the product of higher powers — the Evil Mother and Fireman, respectively — so Bob turns out to not be the Big Bad after all, or at least not the Biggest Bad. It’s his demonic mother, and in Part 15, she will be named: Jowday, or Judy. An important scene is that of the young Sarah Palmer hosting a moth-frog while the lumberjack’s mantra repeats over the air; presumably there are other moth-frog victims too. These seem to be a way of “tagging” potential hosts for a future day when Judy comes to earth, as she finally does at the end of Parts 1 and 2, emerging from the glass cage in New York, and then going out west to possess Sarah Palmer. Up until The Return, Sarah hasn’t been possessed, though she has been infected by a deep evil, which explains her schizo-problems in the classic series, and why she always had visions and nightmares of Bob. Frankly I’ve had my own nightmares since watching this episode, in which that undead lumberjack was outside pounding on my bedroom window, chanting: “This is the water, and this is the well; drink full, and descend; the horse is the white of the eyes, and dark within. This is the water, and this is the well…”

3. No Knock, No Doorbell (Part 16). Payoffs galore come in this embarrassment of riches, and plenty of the major players die. Hutch and Chantal, for one. Their storyline has been a constant Tarantino parody, and they go down in a bloodbath after provoking a psychopath by blocking his driveway. Richard Horne’s death is more biblical, like the Binding of Isaac; his father (Cooper’s doppelganger) pretty much sacrifices him by sending him in his place to climb the hill that has been booby-trapped with an electric explosion (the coordinates given by Ray in Part 13 and Jeffries in Part 15 each pointed here). Diane’s death offers the biggest revelation of all: she isn’t even Diane, but rather a tulpa created by Bob/Mr. C, whose purpose has been to keep tabs on Team Gordon and ultimately kill them all. Her confession about the night Cooper came to visit her holds some truth: a version of Cooper (Mr. C.) did rape the real Diane. She seems to have been pushed to this confession because she got a a one-word text message from Mr. C. (reading “all”), which triggered her and caused her to freak out and text him back the second half of the coordinates from Ruth Davenport’s arm (she had sent him the first half in Part 12), which lead to the White Lodge. She suddenly “feels herself in the Sheriff’s station” at Twin Peaks. (Which is where the real Diane is, in the form of Naido, being protected in a jail cell.) Most climactic is Dougie’s “death”; he wakes in his hospital bed, Dale Cooper once again, and I won’t deny I’m in tears when he assumes command like the hero we’ve missed this season, Laura’s theme starts playing, leading to his farewell to Janey-E and Sonny Jim. As if all this weren’t enough, Audrey Horne gives the best Roadhouse performance of the series, in her reprisal of “Audrey’s Dance”, a brilliant inversion of her sultry dance from season 1. But it turns out this dance is all in her mind: she’s sick and paranoid, and locked up in a psych ward — an upsetting but understandable fate for someone who was raped by the man she worshiped, and gave birth to a sadist like Richard.

3. Call for Help (Part 3). If you’re not hooked on The Return by this episode, you don’t have your priorities straight. The 20-minute opening sequence is a wet dream of Lynchian phantasmagoria, where Cooper, escaping from the Black Lodge, finds himself in the Realm of Nonexistence — almost a cross between the world of Eraserheard (ominous churning sounds, industrial hums) and Pan’s Labyrinth (eyeless humanoids). He’s protected from an unseen evil (who we will later know to be Judy) by two women, one of them being the eyeless Naido, the other being a Ronette Pulaski look-alike. The evil is referred to as “Ronette’s” mother. He exits the enclosure and finds himself floating in space, and he sees a huge face of Garland Briggs saying, “blue rose”, which is an FBI code word for either supernatural or extraterrestrial events. Naido falls off the capsule and plummets to Earth (this is October 1), where she will be found on the same day in Part 14. Eventually, Cooper gets “electrocuted” out of this Realm and into Las Vegas (nine days into the past, on September 22, as we later learn), taking the place of Dougie Jones, who vanishes in turn to the Black Lodge to be unmade. (Dougie is a copy of Cooper, who was made years ago by Bob/Mr. C as a ploy to confuse his adversaries.) David Lynch as Gordon Cole makes his first appearance in The Return, as he gets a call saying that Cooper is in prison in South Dakota. The actual Cooper takes over Dougie’s life in a retarded mental state, goes to the casino and starts winning jackpot after jackpot — one of my very favorite scenes in the series. His childlike “Hello!”‘s are precious.

5. Don’t Die (Part 6). I look so forward to this episode on my re-watches. The Dougie scenes are terrific. He’s driven home by a security guard, and has a touching moment in saying goodnight to Sonny Jim. Janey-E then finds out about his prostitute Jade, and tears him a new one, to which he replies with wonderful childlike innocence: “Jade give two rides”. Janey-E then arranges to meet with the thugs who are demanding his gambling debts, and her diatribe about the “99 percenters in a dark age” is hilarious. Then Dougie starts to unravel a network of corruption in the insurance case files, drawing cryptic images on the pages, which ends up scoring huge points with his boss. Cut to Richard Horne doing business with shady characters, while at the R&R Diner, Fat-Ass Miriam eats pies to the giggling fits of a waitress whose figure is also quite rotund. Shortly after, Richard Horne plows through an intersection, running over a little boy, and Fat-Ass Miriam is the only one who recognizes Richard behind the wheel of the truck. We see Ike the Spike carrying out a nasty (and messy) assassination of a woman who failed to kill Dougie; Dougie is of course next hit on Ike’s list. Finally, Hawk finds the lost pages of Laura’s diary in a bathroom stall door of the police station, apparently stashed there by Leland Palmer back in season 2 when he was brought in for questioning. It’s a hard-hitting episode all around.

6. There’s a Body All Right (Part 7). This is largely Diane’s episode, as she follows Gordon and his team back to the prison in South Dakota so she can question Cooper. After a harrowing interview (which makes rather clear that Bad Cooper raped Diane), she tells Gordon she knows the prisoner isn’t really Cooper. After they leave, the doppelganger blackmails the warden into letting him and Ray escape the prison. At Twin Peaks, Truman and Hawk read the missing pages from Laura’s diary, and conclude that “if the good Dale is in the Lodge”, and still there, then it must have been a bad version of Cooper that came out 25 years ago. Meanwhile in Vegas, Dougie is questioned by the police, when they find his car has been bombed, and of course Janey-E takes control of the conversation by scorning the police as incompetent fools. Then comes the most fucked up scene of the series: outside the insurance building, Dougie is attacked by Ike the Spike; his Cooper-FBI instincts take over immediately, and he grapples with Ike; suddenly the evolution of the arm (the brain on the tree) sprouts out of the sidewalk, hissing at him, “Squeeze his hand off! Squeeze his hand off!” Dougie/Cooper does just that, and is hailed a savior by the onlooking crowds. It’s a splendid homage to Cronenberg’s History of Violence. This is one of two episodes (besides Parts 1 and 18) that doesn’t contain a Roadhouse performance; it ends rather in the R&R Diner, to a mellow tune on the jukebox, which allows us to breathe better and process that crazy scene.

7. There’s Fire Where You Are Going (Part 11). This episode is packed with horrific events that end in a desert confrontation that almost goes the way of David Fincher’s Se7en. Bill Hastings’ head implodes as Team Gordon investigate the area in which Hastings and his librarian friend Ruth Davenport encountered an alternate reality called The Zone. Major Briggs had apparently been hibernating in the Zone, until he told Hastings and Davenport to find him a set of coordinates (to the White Lodge) in a military base. (When they did that for him, Briggs’ head disappeared and went to the White Lodge, while the rest of his body stayed behind.) Ghosts flit about this area, and Gordon finds the corpse of Ruth with the string of coordinates on her arm (which Diane later surreptitiously memorizes when Albert shows a photo of the arm). Over in Twin Peaks, Truman and Hawk are pouring over Hawk’s Indian map to locate the same place — Jackrabbit’s Palace, the grove mentioned in the metal tube left years ago by Major Briggs (which they opened in Part 9), which provides access to the White Lodge. On other fronts: Becky goes ballistic when she finds Steven is cheating on her, and almost kills her mother driving off to confront him with a gun. Bobby Briggs sees a strange zombie-like child figure crawling out of a stopped car. But it’s the final sequence that is alone worth the price of admission, as the Mitchum Brothers, on the brink of murdering Dougie in the desert, take him on as their friend. Like Part 7, this episode doesn’t end on a Roadhouse performance, but to the piano tunes of Angelo Badalamenti himself, in the casino restaurant, with Dougie and the Mitchums toasting each other — a new friendship that will play out wonderfully in the rest of the series.

8. What Story is That, Charlie? (Part 13). Here we see the two Coopers coming out on top in their respective worlds. Dougie and Janey-E are in Seventh Heaven, now that Dougie has cemented a friendship with the Mullins Brothers, who have lavished them with gifts, in particular a new car, and a play gym set for their son, which they set up in the backyard. Dougie even manages to avoid being poisoned by Anthony at the last minute, and turning his rival colleague to confession and contrition. And that’s not all: the gods are looking out for Dougie everywhere: the Las Vegas detectives finally get the fingerprint results for Dougie: he is a man who escaped from prison two days ago in South Dakota and is a former FBI agent. The truth is so ludicrous they laugh and trash the report as erroneous. As for Bad Cooper (Mr. C.), he gets the spotlight in this episode with the arm-wrestle match and his ascendance to boss-hood of this group of scumbags in western Montana that he has no use for. The brilliance of this scene is that it actually makes us root for Bad Cooper, for the first and only time in the series. He confronts Ray (an informant for the FBI), who confesses that somebody named Phillip Jeffries had ordered him to place the Owl Cave Ring on Mr. C.’s finger when he died. He tells Mr. C. that Jeffries is in hiding somewhere called “the Dutchman’s”, and gives Mr. C. the set of coordinates that will (supposedly) lead to the dark evil that Doppel-Coop is trying to find. Meanwhile, Sarah Palmer is watching violent video clips on repeat as she drinks and smokes; Norma refuses to dumb down her pie formula to increase profits; and Dr. Jacoby runs across his most loyal fan, Nadine, who is proudly displaying her gold shit-digging shovel.

9. The Past Dictates the Future (Part 17). Pardon my blasphemy for putting this right in the middle, but there’s something at once momentous and unsatisfying about the penultimate climax in Sheriff Truman’s office. It concerns of course the character of Freddie. The showdown between him and Bob is rather silly and plays like a sophomoric satire on the superhero franchise. (Honestly, I haven’t seen anything this hollow from Lynch since the Wizard of Oz imagery in Wild at Heart.) I can understand the logic of involving a character from a far-away place like England. The Black Lodge has been efficient at removing local threats (Briggs, Jeffries, Cooper, Diane, Desmond, Stanley, Hastings, etc.), and so the White Lodge needs to employ agents for this showdown that the Black Lodge either can’t see coming (innocent Andy, naive Lucy), or someone so far away that the Black Lodge can’t get to and corrupt in advance (like Freddie). But Freddie doesn’t work. He’s introduced too late in the series (Part 14) for us to be invested in, he’s not compelling anyway, and his gloved “magic fist” is rubbish. A villain like Bob deserved to go out better than this. Everything else about this episode is top notch. Cooper’s return to Twin Peaks is glorious, and I love that the Mitchum brothers (with their bimbos in tow: Candie, Mandie, and Sandie) are in attendance: a wonderful team up of the Vegas gangsters and the Twin Peaks cops. Cooper’s time-travel back into Laura’s Fire Walk With Me scenes, and his altering of the past, is sublime. Noteworthy is what happens before all of this, when Cooper’s doppelganger enters the White Lodge. That Mr. C. is easily trapped and diverted from Sarah Palmer’s house to the Sheriff’s Office (the coordinates he was given in Parts 12 and 16 by Diane, like those given in Parts 13 and 15 by Ray and Jeffries, led him into a trap both times) shows that he’s not as Bad as he thinks; it’s his mother Judy who is the real Bad.

10. Laura is the One (Part 10). After the plot infodumps of Part 9, this one gets back into story, without any real plot advancements, but with searing drama nonetheless. It shovels up the rot of everyday life, where women suffer unflinching violence at the hands of vain and vicious men. Richard Horne beats a school teacher to death (the one who saw him run over the boy in Part 6), and then robs his grandmother of all her money, choking her and swearing at her in a scene out of Clockwork Orange. Becky is terrorized by her boyfriend Steven (repeating the mistakes of her mother Shelly under Leo Johnson). Candie thinks the Mitchum Brothers will kill her after she hits one of them by accident swatting a fly. In contrast to this misogynistic dysfunction, Dougie and Janey-E share an act of sex that leaves them wonderfully fulfilled. Janey-E is falling in love with her husband all over again. The only real plot advancement is in the thread of the Mitchum Brothers, who, having spotted Dougie on TV (from Ike’s attempt on his life), now plan to kill this man who won all their casino jackpots and (per the lies of Dougie’s colleague) refused their 30 million-dollar insurance claim. Laura is the One shows Lynch channeling Blue Velvet with a vengeance. Laura is a prism showing the helplessness of abused women; the message is visceral and profound.

11. There’s Some Fear in Letting Go (Part 15). The shitstorm is imminent now, and the tension ratchets up. There are also emotional farewells. In the opening scene Nadine lets Ed go, giving him permission, after all these years, to be with Norma. And for the first time ever, I have actually enjoyed watching her, as she — inspired by the freedom-fighting ravings of Dr. Jacoby — marches down the road, armed with her shit-digging shovel, to give Ed his eternal pass to romantic freedom. (“See Ed? I’m shoveling my way out of the shit!”) Gersten and Steven’s affair ends on a rather different kind of farewell, as Steven blows his own brains out under the tree. And Dougie and Janey-E share a precious moment, as Janey-E finally thinks everything is coming together for a happy marriage — having no idea that she’s about to be bidding farewell to her precious Dougie, who puts his fork into an electrical socket, presaging his return to the identity of Dale Cooper in Part 16. The crucial scene is Mr. C’s. He comes to the teleporting Convenience Store in western Montana, gets access to “The Dutchman’s”, where we see that Philip Jeffries has turned into a Dalek/overgrown tea kettle. Judy is now discussed for the first time in The Return. Like Cooper and the Fireman, Mr. C. also has a plan to either capture or destroy this evil entity, and possibly harness her power so that he can become top dog. But Jeffries is dicking him around: Mr. C. asks why he sent Ray to kill him, but Jeffries deflects; Mr. C. guesses that it was not Jeffries but the demonic entity who had called him back in Part 2, the evil that wants him back in the Lodge, who is indeed probably the Judy whom Jeffries once mentioned back in 1989 (in the Fire Walk With Me sequence). He demands to know who Judy is, and Jeffries gives him some coordinates where he can find her; these coordinates point to the same location as the coordinates given by Ray in Part 13. The Roadhouse scenes are among the series best: a bar brawl to the tune of ZZ Top’s “Legs”, and the end performance of “Axolotl”, as a girl crawls on the floor between everyone’s feet, freezes suddenly, and let’s out a scream for who-knows-what-reason. Jesus, bring on the shitstorm already.

12. Brings Back Some Memories (Part 4). Cooper keeps scoring jackpots, and then he is chauffeured home to settle into his new life as Dougie. His interactions with Naomi Watts are instant classics, as he struggles to perform the simple tasks of dressing himself and drinking coffee. These scenes are some of the most precious in the series. The episode lands the surprise of Bobby Briggs, who has become a cop; and it’s an emotional moment when he breaks down at the sight of Laura’s photo in the police workroom. Hawk and Truman are trying to figure out what is “missing” (as the Log Lady told Hawk), as it pertains to Dale Cooper and Hawk’s Indian heritage. Bobby offers that Cooper was the last person to see his father (Major Briggs) alive, before he died in the fire at his station on March 28, 1989. A day before this, Cooper had come by the house to talk to Major Briggs about something. (Which we know must have been Cooper’s doppelganger, though Briggs had no idea.) Gordon, Albert, and Tammy arrive at the federal prison in South Dakota. Cooper tells Gordon that he’s been working undercover all these years with Phillip Jeffries, and that he needs to be debriefed by Gordon. Albert tells Gordon that years ago he had authorized Jeffries to give Cooper some needed information about their contact in Columbia New York. A week later that contact was dead. Gordon feels they are in over their head, and wants to get Diane to talk to Cooper.

13. Case Files (Part 5). In this episode we get the return of soap opera elements of the classic series: Norma and Shelly are still working at the R&R, but Shelly has a daughter in an abusive relationship (much like Shelly once was with Leo). There’s a bit too much of Sheriff Truman’s bitching wife. Dr. Jacoby, on the other hand, is put to hilarious use: now a freedom-fighting crank, he spews conspiracy theories on his own radio show, and peddles gold-plated shit-digging shovels (“Shovel your way out of the shit!”). Nadine seems to be his only fan. The best part of this episode, of course, is the Dougie storyline: Cooper’s day at work in an insurance meeting, where he calls out a colleague for lying about a claim, and is then tasked by his boss with reams of case files to work on as punishment, and then loiters outside on the plaza well into the evening, unable to get himself home. He befriends a statue to keep himself company, in a truly heartbreaking scene.

14. We Are Like the Dreamer (Part 14). By rights this episode should be a really strong one, as it contains the pivotal journey to Jackrabbit’s Palace on October 1, and Andy’s vision inside the White Lodge: the demonic Judy, the Convenience Store, the two Coopers, and the importance of Naido whom they find naked on the forest floor. But aside from that sequence — and the stunning scene in which Sarah Palmer opens up her face and and bites a man’s throat out — this is an episode weighed down by meandering exposition, and even almost half-ruined by the introduction of a silly character who becomes critical to the series’ end game. That character being Freddie of the Green Glove: a young man from Britain who was given a magic fist, and told by the Fireman to go to Twin Peaks where his “destiny would be fulfilled”. Seriously, did Lynch and Frost actually contrive something this half-baked? This episode finally connects Team Truman in Twin Peaks with Team Gordon in Buckhorn. The Sheriff calls Gordon to tell him about the missing pages from Laura’s diary that could imply there are two Dale Coopers. Gordon asks Diane if on the last night she saw Cooper he mentioned Major Briggs, and she says yes; Albert implies that Major Briggs, who died in a the fire 25 years ago, is out of place and time, since his body is young and only a few days dead, and found here in Buckhorn instead of Twin Peaks; and that inside his stomach was a ring dedication to a “Dougie” from a “Janey-E”. Diane looks alarmed, and tells them Janey-E is her half-sister living in Vegas, and Gordon calls the FBI to find this Dougie Jones.

15. Let’s Rock (Part 12). Some lists rank this as the worst episode, and it does admittedly try the patience of even the most die-hard Lynch fans, with scenes that move so glacially it’s obnoxious. But there are good sequences overlooked by the detractors, the best being the return of Audrey Horne. It took twelve episodes to get to her, and her prolonged, go-nowhere argument with her tiny bald husband becomes more suspenseful the less we can make sense of it. Then there is the other Horne, Benjamin (Audrey’s father), who we’ve seen in many episodes so far, but finally gets a strong scene, when Sheriff Truman pays him a visit. His reaction to the news of his grandson (Richard) being the one who ran over the boy makes me feel for Ben in a way I never have up to this point. Truman then gives Ben the old key to Cooper’s room at the Great Northern, that Dougie’s prostitute had put in the mail — cementing Truman’s conviction that Cooper is indeed active somewhere in some important way. Meanwhile Gordon brings Tammy onto the Blue Rose task force, and also deputizes Diane, though this latter is just to keep Diane close: He and Albert spy on her texts; she gets one from Mr. C. asking Diane if “they’ve asked about Vegas yet”; which Gordon knows nothing about. Diane figures the coordinates on Ruth Davenport’s arm point to Twin Peaks, and that must be where Major Briggs is now. She sends the first half of the coordinates to Mr. C. Finally, there are the scenes with Sarah Palmer who looks downright menacing; and there are strange noises inside her house. Oh, and I almost forgot: more of Dr. Jacoby’s hilarious shit-shoveling rants. Really, this episode isn’t quite as bad as it’s made out to be.

16a. My Log Has a Message for You (Part 1). I can understand why this was joined with Part 2 as a double bill, and I consider them as one, tied at the 16th slot. It’s a relatively sluggish re-introduction to the world of Twin Peaks. We learn that Buckhorn, South Dakota is a sort of “New Twin Peaks”, where Cooper’s doppelgänger (Mr. C.) has been operating since his escape from the Black Lodge in the season-two finale. It’s also here that local police have just found the decapitated head of a librarian placed on the headless body of an unidentified man (Major Briggs, we will later learn), and suspect the school’s principal, Bill Hastings. Meanwhile, in New York, the young pair Sam and Tracy are brutally savaged by a demonic force when they have sex; the force appears in a glass cage owned by Cooper’s doppelganger, who has been trying to trap this evil entity. Mr. C. himself is in South Dakota, hooking up with a shady couple named Ray and Darya. In Twin Peaks, meanwhile, the Log Lady tells Hawk that “something is missing”, having to do with Dale Cooper, and only Hawk can find it, on account of his heritage. The most critical scene, however, is the very first: Cooper is sitting in the White Lodge, and the Fireman tells him, “It is in our house now. Remember 430. Richard and Linda. Two birds with one stone.” This scene takes place much later in the series, probably after Cooper electrocutes himself back into self-awareness at the end of Part 15. (Notice that in the above pic he doesn’t have his FBI pin, whereas he is wearing the pin in the Lodge scenes of Part 2; he reacquires the pin after the showdown with Bob in Truman’s office in Part 17. ) The meaning of the Fireman’s statement will unfold in the finale: the “it” refers to Judy, “our house” is the Palmer house, “430” is the number of miles that Cooper and Diane will have to drive to get to the alternate reality, “Richard and Linda” are Cooper and Diane’s alter egos, and “two birds with one stone” represents the overall plan of saving Laura and dealing with Judy at the same time. This plan is either (a) a backup plan, in case Judy foils Cooper’s attempt to save Laura in the past by sending Laura to an alternate world, or (b) part of the same plan to save Laura in the past, in which case the Fireman will send Laura to the alternate world in order to trap Judy.

16b. The Stars Turn and a Time Presents Itself (Part 2). There’s as much to pay attention to in this second half of Part 1. Laura Palmer appears to Cooper 25 years since she last saw him (27 years, actually, but who’s counting), just as she had promised, and, repeating the same gestures, bends over to whisper in his ear. Twenty-seven years ago she had whispered the name of her killer in his dream of the Black Lodge (something like “My father killed me”); now she whispers the name of a power even worse than Bob (something like “My mother is Judy”), and tells him that he can finally leave the Black Lodge. At this stage, we have no idea what she’s whispering, or know anything about Judy, but by the finale it will be clear that she gave Cooper a mission to save her from being killed by her father in the past, so that she can ultimately save her mother from Judy — and save other people from the growing powers of the Black Lodge. But again, we’re completely ignorant of the demon Judy at this point; we think Bob is the Big Bad, and so when we turn to the scenes of Mr. C, they carry the deepest dread. Ray has the information Mr. C needs, having gotten it from Bill Hastings’ secretary. But soon Ray is arrested and put in federal prison for (supposedly) carrying weapons over state line; Mr. C. kills Darya, realizing that she and Ray have been hired to kill him. Before killing her, he tells her that tomorrow he’s supposed to get pulled back into the Black Lodge, and shows her a spider symbol on an ace of spades, saying, “This is what I want.” It’s apparently some great demonic power he wants control over, and who we much later realize is Judy, who of course is the one who wants him dead and back in the Black Lodge. Mr. C. instead wants to find the White Lodge and harness its power to use against Judy, and that’s the information Ray has. Meanwhile inside the Lodge, Cooper looks out from the curtains and sees his doppelganger driving toward the South Dakota prison, but before he can step out, he is sabotaged by the doppelganger of the Evolution of the Arm, without question Lynch’s most brilliant creation in The Return. The doppelganger forces Cooper into the Realm of Nonexistence (which will pick up immediately in Part 3), while Judy emerges in New York, summoned by the sex act of Sam and Tracy, and then goes to take up residence in the Palmer’s house at west… and we see Sarah Palmer in her living room relishing scenes of gory violence on TV.

17. This is the Chair (Part 9). If there is a worst episode in The Return, I suppose it’s this one. It’s almost entirely an exposition dump, necessary for our understanding, but weighed down by the expected freight. As Gordon and his team fly away from South Dakota, he gets two phone calls, the first from the Pentagon, telling him about the fingerprint match with Major Briggs on the decapitated body in Buckhorn; the second from the prison they just left, informing him that Cooper (Mr. C.) just escaped. Mr. C. (who had put the hit on Dougie in Part 7) tells Hutch and Chantal that he will have a hit job for them in Vegas. Mr. C. is also sending secret texts to Diane, indicating that she can’t be entirely trusted. The Police, for their part, cannot find records on Dougie Jones prior to 1997, and so they swipe his fingerprints from a coffee mug. Meanwhile, in Twin Peaks, Mrs. Briggs tells the Sheriff’s team about the night before her husband died, when he he met with Agent Cooper (who must have been the Bad Cooper, based on what they read from Laura’s diary in Part 7). She gives them a vial left by her husband, containing directions, dates, times, and a location (Jackrabbit’s Palace) — which sounds a lot like the information for entering another dimension that Bill Hastings is describing to Gordon’s team at the same time in Buckhorn. The interrogation of Bill Hastings is the absolute worst scene of the series. Hastings (played by the thoroughly irritating Matthew Lillard) sobs pathetically as he relates the details of how he and Ruth Davenport located Major Briggs in an alternate dimension, how they helped the major find coordinates that would allow him to move the White Lodge to a new hiding place, and how Ruth was killed by “others” and that the major’s head vanished. His sobbing goes on and on, and it’s a tedious ordeal to sit through, but unfortunately necessary, unless you’ve seen the series enough times to know all the plot details.

And now, the music…

The musical sequences that finish each episode deserve to be ranked on their own. Most of them (except two of them, from Parts 7 and 11) are Roadhouse performances. One of them (the Nine Inch Nails, from Part 8) comes toward the beginning instead of the very end. Click on the links to see and hear the performances from The Return.

1. Audrey’s Dance, by Angelo Badalamenti (Part 16). The Return’s dreamiest and most nostalgic moment. Compare with the teenage Audrey, so full of promise, here, from Episode 2 of the classic series (“Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer”). Now she’s in a mental asylum. The stage performance is all in her head, and it crushes me every time on the reveal.

2. Axolotl, by The Veils (Part 15). The edgy Roadhouse pieces that finishes the episode where a shitstorm feels imminent. On the bar floor a girl crawls on the floor, weaving through the feet of dancers, until she freezes and lets out a scream for some unknown reason. Pure Lynchian psycho-horror.

3. No Stars, by Rebekah Del Rio and Moby (Part 10). The singer of “Llorando” in Mulholland Drive gives a stunning performance (and notice Moby playing guitar), with a voice that goes through you like an awl. A suitable aftermath to the horrible scenes of abuse inflicted on women throughout Part 10.

4. She’s Gone Away, by the Nine Inch Nails (Part 8). One wonders how the Roadhouse found the money to hire The Nine Inch Nails, but anyway… the band perfectly summons the specter of Bad Cooper, who is possessed by Bob. Part 8 is of course all about how Bob was created.

5. Saturday, by the Chromatics (Part 12). Like Julee Cruise in the classic years, Chromatics seems made for the world of Twin Peaks. This soothing instrumental piece caps off the slow-paced episode that is Part 12, and is a favorite of mine.

6. Wild West, by Lissie (Part 14). Lissie’s liveliness sets her apart from the other artists on this list, and it’s interesting that she is used for Part 14, which is dream-themed — almost serving as a wake-up call at the end. It’s a great song.

7. Heartbreaking, by Angelo Badalamenti (Part 11). It’s nice to have a couple episodes that break with the Roadhouse formula (the other is at #12). Badalamenti’s scoring plays over the casino restaurant scene, in which child-like Dougie receives blessings and favors of the mob.

8. The World Spins, by Julee Cruise (Part 17). The first time Cruise performed this was in the final scene of the critical Episode 14 of the classic series (“Lonely Souls”), when Leland Palmer was finally revealed as his daughter’s killer. (See here.) It’s fitting that Cruise reprises the song in Part 17, right after Cooper goes back in time to prevent that murder.

9. Tarifa, by Sharon Van Etten (Part 6). This deeply emotional piece really hits the spot after the roller coaster ride of Part 6, involving the hit-and-run of a young boy, a messy assassination of the woman who failed to kill Dougie Jones at the Rancho Rosa Estates, and Janey-E’s “We are the 99 percenters!” diatribe as she pays off Dougie’s gambling debts.

10. Shadow, by Chromatics (Part 2). This band is so atmospheric they play twice (the other at #5), and they make a perfect first act in the series.

11. Snake Eyes, by Trouble (Part 5). A suitable piece to the upsetting booth scene in which the sadistic Richard Horne is introduced for the first time.

12. Sleep Walk, by Santo and Johnny Farina (Part 7). Nothing beyond these mellow notes are necessary after the batshit crazy scene of the brain-tree in the sidewalk.

13. Mississippi, by Cactus Blossoms (Part 3). Slow-burning country harmonies aren’t usually my thing, but this piece carries enough eeriness to go with the weird confusion of Part 3.

14. Lark, by Au Revoir Simone (Part 4). Lynch has always liked this band for the dreamy voices and haunting harmonies, but they don’t do much for me.

15. A Violent Yet Flammable World, by Au Revoir Simone (Part 9). See #14.

16. Just You, by James Hurley (Part 13). The otherwise excellent Part 13 is capped off by the worst performance. This song has been derided by even hard-core Lynch fans, ever since James first sang it with Maddy and Donna (see here) in Episode 9 of the classic series (“Coma”), and I’m not sure what Lynch was thinking by resurrecting it. Unlike Julee Cruise (see #8), the nostalgia power is very limited here. It’s just a cheesy song about a tortured romance.

Retrospective: The 14 Albums of U2 (1980-2017)

The new U2 album is awful. I’m not sure what happened to these guys who used to be capable of riffs and melodies that could swallow the world. But there’s not a single track on Songs Of Experience that does anything for me. Which pretty much repeats the failures of Songs of Innocence and No Line on the Horizon.

All the more reason for this retrospective, to remind ourselves how great the band used to be. Here’s my ranking of the 14 albums.

1. Achtung Baby. 1991. 5 stars. When U2 reinvented themselves they exceeded their ambitions. Bono’s stated intent was to “burn down the Joshua Tree” and come up with a sound just as original, and they produced a masterpiece with not a single bad track. The sitz im leben of the album is well known: the band members were in Berlin after the Wall’s fall, inspired by a new decade and new ideas, but gnashing their teeth in frustration until they finally broke through with a style that incorporated unnerving sonics and the rising alternative influences of the ’90s. The music sounds almost like hypnotic pulses from a shadow realm like The Upside Down; I never tire of listening to it from start to finish.

Best Tracks: Fly, Until the End of the World, Ultraviolet, One, Mysterious Ways.

2. The Unforgettable Fire. 1984. 5 stars. If not for the fact that Achtung Baby is so compulsive, and that I can pretty much listen to it regardless of my mood, I’d call this the best U2 album. Bands are often at their best right before hitting a formula that earns them mass fandom, and that’s the point U2 was at in the mid-’80s. The Unforgettable Fire is stronger than The Joshua Tree for its fever dream quality, but also for carrying punches and mercies in equal balance. It’s another masterpiece album, and it has the mystique of being recorded in a castle (Slane) under the guidance of Brian Eno, who allowed U2 to spread their wings into ambient territory with more synths and strings.

Best Tracks: A Sort of Homecoming, Bad, Pride, Elvis Presley and America, The Unforgettable Fire.

3. All That You Can’t Leave Behind. 2000. 5 stars. By the end of the ’90s I’d given up on U2, but then came this phenomenal return to form blending the best of the band’s past: the melodies and hooks from the ’80s albums, with the more electronic textures from the ’90s. The result is a filler-free album on which each song sounds like its own opus. On top of that, Bono’s voice is back. Listening to the album, especially the lead track “Beautiful Day”, is like waking up from a slumber, as if the band members are announcing what we always wished — that Zooropa and Pop were just bad dreams. If this album isn’t a masterpiece, it’s damn close.

Best Tracks: Beautiful Day, Stuck in a Moment, Kite, When I Look at the World, Elevation.

4. War. 1983. 4 ½ stars. War remains one of the best political rock albums of all time. The raging passion of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” has been channeled on stage to legendary effect, and “New Year’s Day” is the band’s most timeless hit. But “Drowning Man” is my favorite, with its cribbed lines from Isaiah 40, amazing guitar strokes, and Middle Eastern-sounding violins. The Edge considers the song to be one of the most successful pieces U2 has ever recorded, and I completely agree. War confronts a world bleeding under conflict and is a piece of musical greatness, even if a few songs sound underdeveloped.

Best Tracks: Drowning Man, New Year’s Day, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Like a Song.

5. The Joshua Tree. 1987. 4 ½ stars. The most polished U2 album is considered #1 by many, but in some cases I think it’s too polished for its own good. Tracks like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You” haven’t aged well on me, sounding a bit flat. The live versions continue to be awesome, but the studio versions sound constrained by too much discipline. Then there is the gospel-sounding “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, which I loved in the ’80s but which also hasn’t aged well, and in this case the live versions are even worse; it doesn’t help that Christians have overused it for evangelical purposes. The Joshua Tree is a brilliantly inspired album, no question, but I rarely listen to the whole thing anymore.

Best Tracks: Red Hill Mining Town, Running to Stand Still, Exit. (Live versions only: Where the Streets Have No Name, With or Without You.)

6. October. 1981. 4 stars. The sophomore album is the band’s most underrated, and in my opinion slightly better than Boy. It has a weird intimacy and spirituality that doesn’t overpush things. “Tomorrow” was inspired by the funeral of Bono’s mother; “I Fall Down” explores the pain of relationships; the serene title track puts one in mind of October (the best month of the year); and “Gloria” supplies a Latin liturgical chorus — a strong lead to an album of oblique spirituality. Nowadays I listen to October more than I listen to The Joshua Tree. Even if there isn’t any one really strong song on it, the collective tracks add up to a texture that is very pleasing to my ear.

Best Tracks: All of them back to back.

7. Boy. 1980. 4 stars. I use the “obscene” U.K. album cover, not the absurd-looking American one which censored the boy for fears of pedophilia. Back in the ’80s this was my first conscious exposure to issues of censorship and free expression, and I remember being puzzled as much as Bono that this image could somehow be seen as dirty. (Those who think it is are probably pedophiles themselves.) The band members wanted the cover to look like a child’s face coming out of white, like a photograph before fully developed, as a metaphor for themselves as fledgling band members. They felt like boys who dreamed big and wanted to conquer the world with music. They’d have to wait a few more years and two more albums, but in hindsight Boy is an exciting signpost towards greatness.

Best Tracks: Out of Control, I Will Follow.

8. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. 2004. 3 ½ stars. Bono has described this album as having no weak songs, “but as an album, the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, and it fucking annoys me”. That’s not a bad summation. The tracks are pretty good, but they have the oddness of not sounding much like U2 even when being derivative of their own work. Much has been lost by this stage — the arresting melodies of the ’80s albums and the dense soundscapes of Achtung Baby. The band members scaled back to the extent that the music lacks mystery. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is basically U2 playing simple and direct. That’s not necessarily bad, but it does show a certain lack of inspiration. It was their last decent album.

Best Track: City of Blinding Lights.

9. Rattle and Hum. 1988. 3 stars. Blues music wasn’t the best fit for U2. There are some good songs here like “Desire” and “Angel of Harlem”, but there not great, and it doesn’t help that the new songs are obscured by the inclusion of live performances of older songs which betrays a weak vision. The best track is actually “Heartland”, which was recorded back in the Unforgettable Fire days. Still, we should be thankful for Rattle and Hum. Its mediocrity signaled to the band members that they desperately needed a new sound. The result would be the miracle of Achtung Baby.

Best Track: Heartland.

10. Zooropa. 1993. 2 stars. Achtung Baby promised a new U2 greatness in the ’90s, but Zooropa failed miserably on that promise. Songs like “Lemon”, “Numb”, and “Babyface” are still enough to give me piles. Tracks like “Stay”, while grossly overpraised, do keep Zooropa out of the 1-star category, but that’s damning (rather heavily) with faint approval. The fact is that this album is a compilation of music hastily thrown together during the Zoo TV tour, and it shows. It’s an experiment with sonics that would come to full fruition in Pop, with results just as dire.

11. Pop. 1997. 2 stars. Apologists for Pop put me in mind of those who defend such musical manures as Rush’s Roll the Bones. This is what happens when fame goes to your head. Great bands like U2 and Rush suddenly become poseurs for the teen crowd. By this point U2 had pushed the electronic texture to its limit so that it’s really all there was left. The guitar distortions are cringeworthy, the melodies are non-melodies, and aside from a couple of mildly interesting tracks, it’s a vain album. Those who defend Pop (and Zooropa) call the rest of U2 fandom unenlightened instead of owning up to the truth: that their taste is where they sit.

12-14. No Line on the Horizon, Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience. 2009, 2014, 2017. 1 star each. No Line on the Horizon was supposed to be the new Achtung Baby but was a go-nowhere travesty. Songs of Experience was forecast as a new Zooropa, which is more accurate, though certainly not to the album’s credit. It’s chock full of embarrassing sentimentality. As for Songs of Innocence, it was released as a free download on iTunes, and as the adage goes, you get what you pay for — which is no doubt why the marketing ploy wasn’t repeated this time for Experience. I’m not sure why U2 persists when they have nothing real to offer anymore. Despite the glorious reboot of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the band members have spent the last dozen years sinking into their conceited backsides. Time to retire.

Retrospective: Crossroads

I went to bed last night pondering the idea of music as a weapon, and paid for it. In my dreams I was assaulted by guitar-wielding psychopaths whose riffs crushed my will and forced me to sink neck deep into the earth. That’s not what happens in Crossroads (1986) but it’s what happens when you watch it with an overheated imagination like mine. The film is almost unheard of these days, which is too bad. It mixes The Devil and Daniel Webster with Huckleberry Finn, throws in homages from underdog dramas, and finishes on a blistering guitar showdown inspired by the “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. And yet for all the pastiche it still feels original after 30 years; it’s certainly aged better than most films I saw in high school. Watching it last night was rewarding, the subsequent nightmare notwithstanding.

The plot involves a guitar student named Eugene, who attends Juilliard on a scholarship. He’s a prodigy of classical music but wants to play southern blues instead, and so tracks down the legendary harmonica player Willie Brown in a nearby nursing home. The two strike up a curious relationship. Eugene is star-struck, and Brown is a bit of an asshole with a mean temper. He’s openly contemptuous of this New York kid who has the balls to call himself a bluesman, since real bluesmen, as he sees it, come from the Mississippi Delta. But he’s also amused by Eugene’s passion and makes a promise to teach him a lost song written by Robert Johnson, in return for breaking him out of the home. Eugene agrees and they hobo all the way down to Mississippi, having some interesting road encounters. They hook up with a girl who is on the run from abusive parents. They go into segregated bars and get fistfuls of southern racism. It’s an introspective film that seems more ’70s than ’80s, and unassuming in what it tries to accomplish. It has a natural charm that draws you in to the southern blues subculture, even if you don’t like blues music (as I don’t).

Eugene’s tutelage under Brown is one of musical instruction and insulting put-downs in about equal measure; at one point Brown even belts him in the face for giving him lip. On top of that, it turns out that the “lost song” is a lie, and that Brown has just been using Eugene to get back to his old stomping grounds. This shatters the kid, but a friendship grows between them despite all this, which they will need for the final act.

Brown’s reason for getting back to Mississippi has nothing to do with settling down and teaching a protégé how to be a new Robert Johnson, far less nostalgia for his own roots. Just the opposite: he needs to re-find a crossroads where he made a deal with the Devil, cancel that deal, and then leave the south forever. As a young man he sold his soul to become famous, and while he got the fame, he’s been in torment for it. Eugene makes light of this crossroads “folklore” whenever Willie brings it up (which is why he gets slapped in the face), but it’s a good thing he thinks it’s bullshit. It will allow him the confidence he needs in the final showdown.

The crossroads is located somewhere between Yazoo City and Vicksburg, and when they arrive the Devil appears as a wide smiling African American in a suit and tie (see left), speaking the local accent. This modest incarnation of Satan somehow manages to be more diabolical than some of the devils seen in horror films. He needs no supernatural supplements to exude menace; everything is conveyed in a predatory smile and lean sarcasm. Brown begs him to tear up their contract and set him free, to which the Devil replies, “Now why on earth would I do that?”

This is where things get interesting. Eugene doesn’t believe this man is supernatural, let alone the Devil, but he can see the tormenting effect he has on Brown and so steps into the conversation to help. The Devil turns on him and offers a challenge: If Eugene will attend a special concert and win a guitar battle, then Brown will get his soul back. If Eugene loses, then Eugene’s soul is forfeit to the devil just like Brown’s. Brown strenuously objects to the proposal, but Eugene tells him not to worry, because he’s just calling the guy’s bluff as he sees it, not realizing the hell he’s just thrown himself into. He and Brown suddenly find themselves in a music hall, awaited on stage by a heavy metal-blues guitarist named Jack Butler, (played by, yes, Steve Vai).

What commences is an extraordinary performance that resembles less a contest and more a lethal duel. The guitars of Eugene and Butler seem weaponized as they alternate their riffs, then play at the same time, get in each other’s faces (though this is more Butler than Eugene), and desperately try to one-up the other’s notes. They get assistance from the floor: a woman leaps and dances and shakes her ass around Butler, cheering him on; Willie whips out his harmonica and plays to Eugene’s music. Finally, Butler lets loose a furious solo that seems impossible to top, but Eugene is able to do so in a stroke of genius, by falling back on his classical training and blending classic and blues in a way that Butler tries to outmatch but utterly fails. It’s worth nothing that while Butler’s performance is real (he’s played by Steve Vai after all), Eugene’s is staged, but his finger work on the guitar looks so goddamn real that I once thought Ralph Macchio was a professional guitarist. (You can watch most of the duel here.)

With the challenges of portraying music as a dangerous force, the Devil as a southern black, and an unbalanced friendship that ends with appropriate payoff, Crossroads does a remarkable job — far better than its reputation suggests. It bombed at the box office, but then I was never surprised by that. It was a mainstream effort that dealt in issues outside the mainstream. Eugene’s odyssey is one of hard lessons and heartbreak; Willie’s torment owes to a myth no one believes. The triumph of the former and liberation of the latter are well earned.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

“L.A. Devotee”: An Unusual Critique of Hollywood

Panic! at the Disco isn’t my kind of band, but their video for “L.A. Devotee” caught my attention. It’s a song about a boy being tortured and brainwashed by the band’s lead singer, and it seems to be a critique of Hollywood and how the media brainwashes kids into worshiping their favorite stars. And what a coup to use Noah Schnapp from Stranger Things. It’s rather appropriate since the character of Will Byers was also abducted (by the Demogorgon) and imprisoned (in the Upside Down).

In this video his captivity is more reminiscent of the Hostel films. He’s strapped to a chair in what looks like a torture cellar, with a video camera recording him. He sings the lyrics to the song — one moment like an automaton, the next hysterical — while the band’s singer is projected on a screen in front of him looking perversely gleeful. At the end, the kid gets treated to brutal doses of electroshock therapy, with the final frame hinting at… what, exactly? What does the singer intend to do to him?

Click on the image to watch.

L.A. Devotee (Click for Video)

There is a good analysis of the video over at Vigilant Citizen: “While the song ‘L.A. Devotee’ is your typical uptempo-radio-friendly tune with a catchy chorus, the video is a dark, troubling experience. Indeed, the lead singer Brendon Urie is seen taking pleasure in torturing a child in an all-out, satanic brainwashing session. Preying on children, taking pleasure in making them suffer, brainwashing them, black magic rituals: All of the occult elite’s favorite things are crammed in.”

The chorus paints its damning description of Los Angeles.

The black magic of Mulholland Drive
Swimming pools under desert skies
Drinking white wine in the blushing light
Just another LA Devotee
Sunsets on the evil eye
Invisible to the Hollywood shrine
Always on the hunt for a little more time
Just another LA Devotee

Not surprisingly, it evokes Mulholland Drive, a nod to David Lynch’s film in which the lead character is tormented by wish-fulfillment fantasies while strapped in a prison of guilt and self-loathing. As for “white wine”, it could be what the girl makes the boy drink — probably drugged to facilitate hallucinations and trauma. L.A. devotees seem to be those who succumb to the warped reality of the city, depicted in this video as a thoroughly sick environment. Kudos, Noah, for giving the Upside Down a run for its money.

Retrospective: The 20 Albums of Rush (1974-2012)

The Rush band members are over 60 years old now, with 20 albums to their name. It seems like yesterday they were in their twenties balling out “The Spirit of Radio” for the first time. Time doesn’t stand still, as they insist; it zings by. So here’s my homage to their five periods of music, at four albums a piece. Every album has a theme to which the songs point in some way, which I’ve listed. Following that I have bravely attempted to rank the albums, which will probably draw plenty of fire and counter-opinions.

Hard-Progressive (’74-’76)

The fledgling years. When I’m in a Zeppelinesque mood, I go to the first album, and when I want Rush at its best ever, I go to the last.

Rush (’74). Getting a rush from rock n’ roll: “Let’s be Led Zeppelin.”
Fly By Night (’75). The spirit of the moment.
Caress of Steel (’75). Swords, guillotines, midway rides.
2112 (’76). Freedom, liberty, and independence; anti-collectivism.

Progressive-Classic (’77-’81)

As the previous era tamed hard rock with prog, in this period the progressive style becomes disciplined and more accessible, culminating in the famous Moving Pictures.

A Farewell to Kings (’77). The doom of monarchies.
Hemispheres (’78). Subconscious drives; the duality of the mind (reason/emotion).
Permanent Waves (’80). The relationship between nature and technology; being true, and outlasting fads and fashions.
Moving Pictures (’81). Musical portraits (each song a mini-movie); the effect of the spotlight.

Synth (’82-’87)

The era loved or despised. I’m with the former. Rush evolved by taking cues from the more talented bands of the ’80s — Peter Gabriel, U2, The Police, Talking Heads. Hard-sounding guitar gave way to tight, stylish keyboard performances and a darker tone to the music. On whole I consider this era as strong as the previous two.

Signals (’82). New generations vs. the old; the success and failure of communication.
Grace Under Pressure (’83). Surviving the horrors of the world and learning from them; the human response to external stress.
Power Windows (’85). The power of money, government, emotion, dreams, mysticism.
Hold Your Fire (’87). Time and events; turning dreams and goals into reality; controlling instincts (“fire” = “instinct”; thus “hold your fire”).

Pop-Alternative (’89-’96)

The difficult era to define, when Rush tried returning to its roots while also breaking new ground. Foes of the synth period rejoiced to hear more guitar and less keyboards. The era was marred by the widely hated Roll the Bones (the absolute worst of the 20 albums), then saved by the raging comeback, Counterparts.

Presto (’89). Appearances vs. reality; illusions; and the ways we pretend to be magical (problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand”).
Roll the Bones (’91). Fate, chance, taking risks. (Ironically fitting: the album itself was a risk — there’s not a single decent song on it.)
Counterparts (’93). Opposites and pairs; the “nuts and bolts” of human life; the mysteries of relationships.
Test for Echo (’96). The importance of communication and the need for feedback.

Progressive-Metal (’02-’12)

The Renaissance period, which has been rather bad, though the last album single-handedly redeems it.

Vapor Trails (’02). Vivid memories; loss, finality, and finding the determination to carry on in an uncaring world.
Feedback (’04). (Cover album.)
Snakes and Arrows (’07). The good and bad sides of religious faith.
Clockwork Angels (’12). Free will vs. determinism.

How They Rank

1. 2112. 1976. 5 stars. It should have failed, with no hit single and half the album a sprawling narrative of science fiction. But against every odd 2112 gave Rush sudden fame. It marked the clear point at which their hard Zeppelin and cerebral progressive styles — which had clashed rather badly on Fly by Night and Caress of Steel — came together just right. The 20-minute title track “2112” is about a guy living in a controlled future with no art, music, or creativity; he finds a strange device (a guitar) in a cave behind a waterfall, and after learning how to play it he takes it to the music-hating priests who are the overlords; the priests destroy the guitar, telling him that music was the evil that almost destroyed humanity; he then kills himself in martyrdom. The side helpings are frankly almost as good, especially “A Passage to Bangkok”, dealing with marijuana tourism, and “Lessons”, the only Rush song composed entirely by Alex Lifeson. 2112 is Rush’s best album and my third favorite prog album, after Selling England by the Pound (Genesis) and Wish You Were Here (Floyd).

Best Tracks: 2112, Passage to Bangkok, Lessons, Twilight Zone — in other words, virtually the entire album.

2. Signals. 1982. 5 stars. I can only imagine if Rush had decided to evolve in the direction of heavy metal that was becoming popular in the early ’80s. We might have had Snakes & Arrows and Clockwork Angels thirty years early. Instead they went in the direction of my favorite ’80s bands — Peter Gabriel, U2, Depeche Mode, Talking Heads, etc. — focusing more on the music’s texture than its power. Lifeson’s guitar action receded into the background as Peart and Lee’s synth electronics, keyboards, drum machines, and sequencers took over big time. These changes would last through four albums, the band’s synth period of ’82-’87, and would be regarded as a betrayal by the purists. The first of the four, Signals, is a true masterpiece. Appropriately, the album’s theme is new generations vs. the old. The lead track “Subdivisions” is still my favorite Rush song, about adolescent isolation in the suburbs; it’s quintessentially minimalist. “The Analog Kid” has one of the best choruses ever; “Losing It” makes my heart break; “The Weapon” and “Chemistry” are genius; even the pop filler “New World Man” is pretty damn good.

Best Tracks: Subdivisions, The Weapon, The Analog Kid, Losing It.

3. Moving Pictures. 1981. 5 stars. Most critics give it pride of place, and you can understand why. Seriously, who hasn’t heard every song on Moving Pictures? It’s one great track after another. “Tom Sawyer” remains the band’s signature song, “Limelight” laments the oppression of fame, “Witch Hunt” examines mob violence, and “The Camera Eye” swirls with atmospheric odes to New York and London. If you haven’t heard Moving Pictures at all, you probably live at the North Pole. It’s the record that fired up rock fans, whether or not they ever liked Rush before, and is timeless in the purest sense. The album cover still makes me wonder. Is it a sly statement against socialism? One pair of movers is taking away religion, the other two pairs are bringing in a state-controlled economy (dogs playing poker) and Satanic practices (a naked man’s submission to a pentagram), whilst a horrified woman looking on is being “comforted” by a Russian official.

Best Tracks: Limelight, Witch Hunt, The Camera Eye, Vital Signs.

4. Hold Your Fire. 1987. 4 ½ stars...because this one will certainly draw fire, for being in my top five. Fans hate it with a passion. It’s the last of the four synth albums, and takes the keyboard approach to its extreme conclusion, resulting in the band’s biggest departure from their ’70s roots. With all due apologies to the purists, I love Hold Your Fire and never get tired of it. Unlike its predecessor Power Windows, it has aged wonderfully. There’s not a single bad song on it. It may not be the masterpiece Signals is, but even more than Signals it shows the band perfecting a style completely outside the “Rush orbit”. People who despise the synth era are basically just saying they don’t like synth. Any musical genre can be good, and Hold Your Fire hits a home run with its shivering ethereal texture. I think most people who profess hatred for “Time Stand Still” are actually liars. “Mission” is simply pristine; “Prime Mover” the hidden gem. It’s called the Red Album by hard-core haters. I call it that too, but to reclaim it positively.

Best Tracks: Lock and Key, Time Stand Still, Mission, Prime Mover.

5. Clockwork Angels. 2012. 4 ½ stars. The Other Red Album, as I call it, could not be more opposite from the one above, but it’s just as good. Hold Your Fire gave the finger to Rush purists; Clockwork Angels appeals to them by returning to the conceptual story-arcs of the ’70s. One is ethereal grace, the other a combo of prog and heavy metal. The story-arc concerns a young man who journeys from his farm village to a big city ruled by a despot, and along the way he witnesses the worst acts of cruelty and treachery, yet clings to his optimism. The theme is free will vs. determinism, a subject about which the band has always had strong feelings and come down on the side of will. I strongly disagree (I believe free will is an illusion), but that doesn’t diminish the power of this album’s narrative and thundering melodies. The album closes on “The Garden”, the band’s best slow song ever. Clockwork Angels is a completely unexpected comeback album (I’m still addicted to it), easily the best thing Rush has done since Hold Your Fire, and if it ends up being their swan song it’s a perfect exit.

Best Tracks: The Anarchist, Halo Effect, Seven Cities of Gold, The Garden.

6. A Farewell to Kings. 1977. 4 stars. Its predecessor 2112 merged progressive rock with the hard Zeppelin-style, and the result was perfection. Now in Farewell to Kings, the band aimed for a purer progressive voice (Hemispheres in the following year would purify it completely, IMO too much for its own good). Peart expanded drum sounds with keyboard percussion and tubular bells; Lifeson lessened the rage of his guitar; and Lee discovered keyboards and synthesizer pedals. And they recorded the album in England, were progressive rock was thriving under softer and more idyllic sensibilities. The result is a strong album, but also one that shows signs of “finding its way” again. “Cygnus X-1” has never been a huge favorite of mine, probably because the outer-space story had been done so much better on 2112, and the intro is rather long and ponderous. But “Xanadu” is sublime, and “Closer to the Heart” is justifiably famous; it would become the band’s most cherished concert piece rivaling even “Tom Sawyer”.

Best Tracks: Xanadu, Closer to the Heart.

7. Counterparts. 1993. 4 stars. After the putrefying excrement that is Roll the Bones came this comeback album, and easily Rush’s best effort of the ’90s. The band was capitalizing on the alternative and grunge that was all the rage, but giving it even more bite. They hadn’t sounded this hard-hitting since the days of “Tom Sawyer”, and the first three songs (“Animate”, “Stick it Out”, and “Cut to the Chase”) are the most obvious examples and seem front-loaded to announce a blistering return to form. Counterparts also has plenty of the cutting-edge social commentary for which the band is renowned. “Nobody’s Hero” remains my favorite track, with the assertive guitar and lyrics which inspired the law-review article “Nobody’s Hero: On Equal Protection, Homosexuality, and National Security”. “Alien Shore” is another more subdued piece that interrogates race and gender differences. Some tracks are more lackluster, but on whole this is a terrific album.

Best Tracks: Animate, Nobody’s Hero.

8. Permanent Waves. 1980. 4 stars. It might seem a heresy to rank the album containing “The Spirit of Radio” outside the top three and give it anything less than a 5-star rating, but alas. The problem with Permanent Waves is that it just doesn’t measure up to the incredible track that kicks it off. It’s a very good album, to be sure, but it’s no Moving Pictures. Even “Free Will” isn’t as great as its reputation might lead you to believe. The album is destined to be defined by “The Spirit Of Radio”, and to an extent it should. It’s one of the best rock songs of all time (my second favorite Rush song after “Subdivisions”), and fitting that it was the first song of the first album released in a new decade (January 1, 1980). But many Rush fans treat the entire album like the equivalent of Peter Gabriel’s So… and it ain’t so. The three-part “Natural Science”, however, is a noble track, and it’s not as if any of the songs are lemons. Weighing all of this lands Permanent Waves near the top of my 4-star tier.

Best Tracks: The Spirit of Radio, Natural Science.

9. Grace Under Pressure. 1984. 4 stars. Back in the ’80s I was underwhelmed by this album. It struck me as by-the-numbers, and it didn’t help that “The Body Electric” was overplayed on Rock 101 FM; it’s not one of the better tracks. But Grace Under Pressure has aged rather well for me (just as Power Windows has depreciated in value; see below). Thematically it’s Rush’s bleakest album, about dystopian futures, and how humanity responds to external stress and survives the horrors of the world. It came out in the middle of Reagan and Thatcher era, when unemployment and inflation were revving up and the cold war was in full swing. People didn’t want to hear unpleasant songs when reality was so damn gloomy, and so the album wasn’t as successful as it deserved to be. “Red Sector A” is a particularly grim track about a captive in a Holocaust concentration camp; “Distant Early Warning” deals with threats like nuclear war and acid rain; and “The Enemy Within” is a frenetic paced song dealing with how fear works inside us.

Best Tracks: Red Sector A, Distant Early Warning.

10. Hemispheres. 1978. 3 ½ stars. Rush snobs will object to it placing this low, but for all its brilliance Hemispheres is a bit too cerebral. This is what happens when prog is pushed to extremes. The band members got so buried under their concepts here that the music lost its punch; even the best tracks are somewhat atonal. I’ve never been the biggest fan of “Cygnus X-1 Book II”, which continues the black hole story begun in Farewell to Kings but not as impressively. That said, the second half of Hemispheres is quite good: “Circumstances,” “The Trees”, and “La Villa Strangiato”, that last being the band’s best instrumental. “The Trees” is a libertarian piece which the band members have been somewhat embarrassed by when right-wingers (like Rand Paul) express their love for it. Maples clamor for equal rights with majestic oaks and thus doom the entire forest for their efforts — meaning we aren’t all equal in every way, and any attempt to artificially create universal equality is doomed to failure. A reasonable message and simple truth, that unfortunately is open to misuse.

Best Tracks: The Trees, Circumstances.

11. Presto. 1989. 3 ½ stars. This was Rush’s transition out of synth and back into “real” rock, but it’s a strange beast. A lot of the tracks alternate between sounding really good and, well, empty. I can’t get closure on Presto and had serious difficulty ranking it. I settled on the 11th slot with a 3 ½ rating, but some days I feel it deserves even higher, other days much lower. The album’s theme seems to have a real-world effect on the listener. The theme is “magic” — appearances vs. reality, illusions, the ways we pretend to be magical, or how problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand” — and it’s as if the illusion of the album’s greatness owes to magical enchantments sung into it by the band members. Tracks like “Presto”, “The Pass”, and “Hand Over Fist” sound awesome and inspiring, or strangely vacuous, depending on the fullness of the moon, so go figure. Rush worked some weird magic here all right.

Best Tracks: Show Don’t Tell, War Paint.

12. Power Windows. 1985. 3 ½ stars. Of the four synth albums, this one hasn’t aged so well. Back in the day I would have put it all the way up at #5 as a close tie with Hold Your Fire. I still consider “The Big Money” one of the best songs in the Rush canon, but strangely, most of the other songs on Power Windows sound like the same song recycled slightly differently. When I try humming the tune of “Middletown Dreams”, I find that I’m singing “Grand Designs”; etc. Also, there is a cheesy upbeat feel that tends to undermine the heavy social commentary. In this sense the album inverts the bleak and dystopian elements of Grace Under Pressure (which for me has grown better over time; see #8). Power Windows entertains utopian hopes, with redundant melodies that put me in mind of the electronica optimism of (wait for it) Owl City. I know that’s a brutally unfair analogy, and I’m not seriously suggesting this album is as bad as anything by Owl City. I still enjoy listening to it. But it’s not the piece of excellence I once thought.

Best Tracks: The Big Money, Manhattan Project.

13. Rush. 1974. 3 ½ stars. When Geddy Lee was asked to rank the band’s albums, he placed this one pretty high — above Fly by Night and Caress of Steel, to the disagreement of many fans. I agree with Lee. For all its fledgling deficiencies, Rush is a fine debut album. It’s certainly better than Caress of Steel (which I consider a dud) and I think it beats Fly by Night too, even if it’s less polished. It’s basically Rush pretending to be Led Zeppelin, and by the gods they do it well. Everyone likes “Working Man”, but for my money, the lead track “Finding My Way” is so damn good that it’s one of my favorite Rush songs. I suspect fans aren’t inclined to give this album a fair shake because Neal Peart hadn’t joined the band yet, and that’s unfortunate. If Hemispheres is Rush’s most overrated effort, this one is probably their most underappreciated.

Best Tracks: Finding My Way, Working Man.

14. Test for Echo. 1996. 3 stars. I’ve seen lists which rank this album at rock bottom, which is rather surprising. It’s true that a lot of the songs are stale and unimpressive; in fact there are only three good ones to speak of. The problem is that of those three, one is really good, and the opening (title) track is so good that it’s one of my favorite in the Rush canon. “Test for Echo” has one of the most infectious guitar melodies I’ve ever heard — eerie, unnerving, subtle, and hard-hitting all at once. The bum rap this album gets is all the more surprising when you consider that it offers exactly what fans had been demanding since the synth period: a return to the heavy guitar and drum sounds of Moving Pictures. That’s exactly what Test for Echo is; it’s even more heavy than Counterparts in this regard. That said, it has to be conceded that most of the songs are simply not good, regardless of the classic feel.

Best Tracks: Test for Echo, Resist.

15. Fly by Night. 1975. 3 stars. Like Test for Echo, the band’s sophomore album has three really good tracks, and the rest are crap. Part of the problem is that Rush was trying to do too many things and grow too fast, and they come off pretentious and amateur for their efforts. They slaughter Tolkien in the utterly boring “Rivendell”, and tracks like “Best I Can” and “Beneath, Between & Behind” are just as lame. On the other hand, the lead track “Anthem” is an excellent emulation of “Finding My Way” — a blistering hard-rock opening that certainly grabs attention. The nine-minute “By-Tor & the Snow Dog” is also very good and foreshadows the band’s future greatness. Then there is the title track “Fly by Night”, which is decent. Everything else, unfortunately, is forgettable if not painful to the ear.

Best Tracks: Anthem, By-Tor and the Snowdog.

16. Feedback. 2004. 2 ½ stars. I’m generally not a fan of cover albums. Rarely can an artist or band impressively reanimate songs on new terms — Annie Lennox’s Medusa, Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back, and The Killer’s interpretation of U2’s “Ultraviolet” are notable examples — but more often I find that cover creativity torpedoes the essence of what makes the original so good. In the case of Feedback, it’s the other problem: the songs are mere copycats of the originals, without virtually any spin at all, in which case what the hell is the goddamn point? It’s not that Rush’s performances are bad, rather that they come across as a wasted exercise. Die-hard Rush fans may enjoy hearing the band pay dues to their heroes, but the homages do very little for me.

17. Snakes & Arrows. 2007. 2 stars. When I first heard the lead track “Far Cry”, I was excited; Rush hadn’t had a decent album since ’96 (and even Test for Echo was far from excellent), and the back-to-basics approach announced in the reviews gave me incredibly high hopes for Snakes & Arrows. On top of that I thrilled to the album’s theme of religion, and the good and bad sides of faith. It was about time the band took on this subject. Snakes & Arrows, however, is a far cry from anything impressive after “Far Cry”. The rest of the album is a showcase for mundane melodies in which nothing stands out at all. “Working Them Angels” is a slight cut above the rest, but that’s it. This is without question the most disappointing Rush album in terms of the expectations I had for it. It may be an improvement over the misfire of Vapor Trails, but that’s not saying much.

18. Caress of Steel. 1975. 2 stars. Somewhat like Snakes & Arrows, it boasts a decent lead, “Bastille Day”, and then goes downhill. The two epics, “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain Of Lamneth”, are pure mediocrity, and that’s pretty much the entire album. It’s the album that nearly killed Rush, and who could have predicted the masterpiece that would follow next year. Yet I must acknowledge the irony: without the leg-work done on this album, the miracle of 2112 might not have been possible. And it does have its defenders, though I take them with a pound of salt; I think they’re trying to like something more than it deserves. Caress of Steel is underdeveloped and overextended — an understandable bump in the band’s early career that allowed them to learn from these errors and push forward to perfection.

19. Vapor Trails. 2002. 1 star. The original mix was panned for having a distorted and muddy sound, for which the 2013 remastered version is supposedly the remedy, but frankly Vapor Trails is so bad on its own merits that any attempt to salvage it by a remix amounts to little more than trying to polish a turd. And I feel small for saying that, because it was Neil Peart’s catharsis following the back-to-back deaths of his daughter (killed in a highway accident on her way back to university in ’97), and then his wife (from cancer in ’98). Peart had announced his retirement after that, but later got his second wind, and thanks to Vapor Trails we got the post-millennial renaissance of Rush that would yield Clockwork Angels (see #5). Dismal failures can pave the way to unexpected success, and that’s what this album did.

20. Roll the Bones. 1991. 1 star. If I could make music as artfully shitty as Roll the Bones, I’d be perversely proud. Unlike Vapor Trails which is just a stinking mess, the music here seems deliberately crafted to mock and infuriate. (Of course, some purists would describe Hold Your Fire in the same way, but synth haters are a benighted breed to themselves.) Those who make excuses for this album remind me of the apologists for U2’s Zooropa, another ’90s stinker from a great band that for whatever reason turned to appease the teenybopper crowd. The title track is the lead offender, and when Lee sings, “Why are we here? Because we’re here, roll the bones…” that refrain stands as the most embarrassing self-indictment I know of from any band. The theme of the album is chance and taking risks, and indeed the album itself was a risk that completely failed: there’s not a single decent song on it.

Christmas Carol Playlist (King’s College Choir)

Just to prove I’m not a complete Scrooge, here’s my ode to the holiday. Christmas carols are pretty much the only thing I like about this time of year, and there is no better choir than the King’s College of Cambridge. They’ve been celebrating their Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols every Christmas Eve since 1918 (it’s almost their 100th anniversary), and have broadcast it live on the BBC since 1954. It’s as much a concert as a worship service, practically.

Here are my favorites ranked in descending order. You can click on the images to hear the carols, but if you want to listen to them all, I don’t recommend my ranking sequence. Instead, click on my playlist at the bottom, which follows a rough order used in the King’s College services. Starting with #7 and ending with #3 is the right way to do it.


The First Noel

1. The First Noel. William Sandys (editor), 1833. My favorite carol has obscure origins. It probably originated in 15th-century France before being brought across the English channel by the troubadours. Sandys published it in his famous Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern. Its structure is unusual, a single phrase repeated twice followed by a refrain that varies on the phrase. It was used as an instrumental in the final scene of Doubt, which isn’t a Christmas film though none the less powerful for it. The King’s College Choir (click right) does a great job.


Good King Wenceslas

2. Good King Wenceslas. John Mason Neale, 1853. Social justice warrior of the tenth century: a Czech king who marches through miserable weather to feed a poor peasant, helping his page along the way who nearly dies from the cold. The story is based on the historical Saint Wenceslaus I (907–935), who was considered a martyr after his death. The lyrics were written in 1853 to the tune of an obscure 13th-century song. It’s considered a Christmas carol because the story takes place on the Feast of Stephen, the day after Christmas, but a great song that I listen to all year round. This choir version (click right) isn’t the King’s College, but it is the best.


O Come All Ye Faithful

3. O Come All Ye Faithful. John Francis Wade, 1751. Some say that Wade wrote the song himself, others that he stole from an anonymous Latin Hymn written by monks in the 13th century. The version we know comes from the Reverend Frederick Oakeley, who was ordained into the Church of England in 1828 and then converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845. (Turning Roman seems to have been a thing for some of these carolists; see #5 for example.) I love the song to pieces, which surprises me, since the refrain, “O come let us adore him” should by rights sound oversentimental. It doesn’t. It’s one of the most moving in music history, and the King’s College choir nails it (click right).


The Seven Joys of Mary

4. The Seven Joys of Mary. William Sandys (editor), 1833. The earworm of Christmas carols, catchy as hell. It tells of Mary’s happiness at key moments in Jesus’ life: Jesus (1) being born, (2) curing the lame, (3) curing the blind, (4) reading the Torah in the Temple, (5) raising the dead, (6) dying on the crucifix, and (7) wearing the crown of heaven. (I’m not sure any mother would find joy in watching her son die on a crucifix, but there you have it in the sixth joy of Mary.) The tradition of Mary’s joys goes back to the 14th century, but the origin of the song is a mystery. The King’s College choir uses tenors in the first, second, and fourth joys, and baritones in the third and fifth, to great effect (click right).


See Amid the Winter Snow

5. See Amid the Winter Snow. Edward Caswall, 1858. An obscure gem that for whatever reason the King’s College Choir never seems to perform as part of their annual festival. But they’ve recorded it in studio (click right) which is the best version of I’ve heard. It’s a haunting hymn that Caswall wrote shortly after leaving the Church of England and becoming Roman Catholic, and I wonder if that has anything to do with the short shrift it’s given in Anglican circles. The theme of snow in a Bethlehem setting is amusing, and apparently has been justified as a metaphor of purity against the sins of the world.


God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

6. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. William Sandys (editor), 1833. This one resonates from the mists of the 15th century, with the earliest known printed edition dating to 1760. Much has been written on why the comma comes after “merry”, and not “ye”, but less known it that the song has nothing whatsoever to do with being happy. The word “merry” means strong or mighty, as in “Merry Old England”, and the word “rest” means to keep. So the song literally means, “God keep you mighty, gentlemen,” in reference to lamplighters and other various men who were hired to patrol the streets during the holiday. Tidings of comfort in beating down rabble rousers!


Once in Royal David’s City

7. Once in Royal David’s City. Cecil Frances Alexander, 1848. For almost 100 years now (since 1919), the King’s College choir has begun its annual service with this song as the processional hymn. The first verse is always sung solo by a boy between age 9-13, the second verse by the choir, with the congregation joining in after. The choir director chooses the soloist at the very last moment — literally seconds before the song begins — in order to prevent the poor boy from losing sleep the night before, or being a bundle of nerves all morning, from the prospect of being watched live by millions of viewers on the BBC. I chose the 2012 version (click right). The kid looks completely confident to me.


O Little Town of Bethlehem

8. O Little Town of Bethlehem. Phillips Brooks, 1868. Brooks was a rather passionate American Episcopal priest who advocated against slavery during the Civil War. In 1865 he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he participated in a five-hour long Christmas Eve celebration, and he was so inspired by the village of Bethlehem that he wrote the poem for his church three years later. His organist added music to it, and they never dreamed the song would be remembered by anyone, let alone have the lasting impact it did. It’s one of those tunes that’s incredibly compulsive in its modesty (click right).


Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

9. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. Charles Wesley, 1739. It took four people after Wesley to tweak this song into the form we sing today, which is kind of a shame. Wesley’s original had some juicy elements, for example in referencing the Fall from Eden, with the serpent bruising the heel of humanity and Adam bruising its head. Wesley was cleverly suggesting that the serpent in a believer (sin) should be bruised (defeated) by Christ, the second Adam, who reinstates the believer as a beloved son of God. In any case, this is a famous carol for good reason, and the King’s College choir does it justice (click right).


Shepherds in the Field Abiding

10. Shepherds in the Field Abiding. George Ratcliffe Woodward, 1910. This works even better as an instrumental, so I use a pipe organ version; it sounds transcendent (click right). Woodward was an Anglican priest who often fit his songs to melodies from the Renaissance, and in this case landed a jewel. Funny as I’m writing this up, an old Peace Corps friend just posted on Facebook a folk session of this song that he did with his band at a night club, which also sounded really good. Many carols are torpedoed by creativity, but this one seems made for permutations.

If you want to hear the whole list, I’ve arranged them in a suitable order: 7->1->8->9->5->4->2->6->3.

In the Beginning: The Best of Genesis

No, this isn’t a celebration of Invisible Touch‘s 30th anniversary. Like many Genesis fans, I jumped ship in that fateful year of 1986, when the band went commercial. This is rather a commemoration of everything the band did before. In the ’70s they made some of the best progressive rock of all time, especially in the early part of the decade under the sometimes autocratic leadership of Peter Gabriel.

So here are my personal favorites, ranked in descending order. You won’t find any songs from the last three albums (which are top-40 garbage), nor even from the first two (which are painfully amateurish). That leaves the ten albums from 1971-1983. Click on the right album-icons to hear the music.


Supper’s Ready

1. Supper’s Ready. 1972. I can name three songs of over 20 minute length that had lasting impact on me: Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”, Rush’s “2112”, and this apocalyptic suite which is the best of all. It’s a journey through the pages of the Book of Revelation, and a hell of a trip. It starts with a couple about to have dinner, the wife is suddenly possessed and black-robed men descend. Things get crazier until the Apocalypse of John is in full progress — the seven trumpeters, the earth disgorging obscenities, everything. This is what an epic song should aspire to, with a theme ambitious enough to match the music. I still get chills listening to Gabriel bellowing at the end for the New Jerusalem and the angel summoning birds to the great supper of God. But it’s an incredible song in each of the seven acts, adding up to the best prog song of all time, let alone of Genesis.

and then there

Deep in the Motherlode

2. Deep in the Motherlode. 1978. I have more nostalgia for And Then There Were Three than any other rock album. It’s a run of glassy melodies and rhythms, suffused with themes of the American western, and the first Genesis album I bought. “Deep in the Motherlode” was an instant favorite, describing a guy who follows his family’s advice to “go west young man” and chase the Nevada gold rush. It blends progressive and pop, with distorted guitar, bass guitar and bass pedal combos, even guitar synth, with a great synthesizer segment. I can’t believe the band never performed it after the 1980 tour. It’s a song that has faded into obscurity like others on this album, which is way underrated by critics and even by hardcore Genesis fans.


Turn it on Again

3. Turn it on Again. 1980. There has been endless commentary on the unusual time signature, which no one can even agree on. Is it 13/8 or a to and fro between 6/4 and 7/4? Supposedly you can’t dance to it; people try but end up in clumsy fall offs. But if the rhythmic structure is off-kilter, everyone agrees about the compulsive result. It’s a concert favorite for good reason. The Duke album is based around the character “Albert” who lives in a world of fiction, and in this song it’s the TV; he believes the actors are his real life friends. The song speaks to the way we invent ourselves in imaginary relationships with on-screen characters, while screening off our real-world friends and family. Another song I can listen to anytime.


The Battle of Epping Forest

4. The Battle of Epping Forest. 1973. That’s right, my favorite song from the masterpiece album is the absurdist tale of gang wars inspired by the rival thugs who terrorized parts of London in the sixties. Every song on Selling England by the Pound is a gem, but for some people “The Battle of Epping Forest” is a bit overwrought. Not for me. As far as I’m concerned, Peter Gabriel chewed everything he bit off and shat out a masterpiece of gonzo prog. The other band members were famously aghast at his hyperventilating narrative and they insisted on hacking and trimming, but there was no time for editing, thank the gods. It turns out he really did know what he was doing, and I never tire of listening to this overblown epic.



5. Mama. 1983. We didn’t know it back then, but the eponymous album was forcing us to take a blistering look back and an ugly look forward. Side One was the last gasp of all that was ever excellent about Genesis. Side Two announced what fans could expect from now on: top-40 garbage. Really, you could throw most of the side-two songs on Invisible Touch: “Illegal Alien” (the “Invisible Touch” of this album), “Taking it All Too Hard” (“Throwing it all Away”), “Just a Job to Do” (“Land of Confusion”), etc. (“Silver Rainbow” is good though.) But the first side was a mini-masterpiece. “Mama” is still a powerhouse, opening on menacing keys and escalating incredible tension before the drums finally break in and release the pent up fury. It’s about a guy with a mother complex for a prostitute. I linked to the live version from ’84, which is even better than the studio.


The Musical Box

6. The Musical Box. 1971. Known for the tail-end climax in which Peter Gabriel shouts out, “Touch me! Touch me! Now, now, now, now, now!” But let’s back up and tell the 10-minute story in full: A girl asks her boy cousin to join her in a game of croquet. She soon gets pissed at him and knocks his head off with a croquet mallet. She rummages through his things and finds a musical box and opens it. The spirit of her dead cousin appears, and he starts to age rapidly as he lusts for her, harasses her, and sexually assaults her. The kids’ nurse finally rushes into the room, picks up the musical box and hurls it at the spirit, destroying both him and the box. This was Genesis’s first song on their first strong album, and it hasn’t lost its vitality (virility?).


Dancing with the Moonlit Knight

7. Dancing with the Moonlit Knight. 1973. Many consider this the best song from the band’s best album. It’s usually interpreted as an elegy for a lost England, or a response to the economic wreck of the ’70s, especially the massive unemployment. The Labour Party had adopted a hard left agenda, and Peter Gabriel insisted the album be titled Selling England by the Pound, the reference to that party’s slogan at the time. It’s a mistake, however, to think of this as a protest album. Unlike overtly political bands like U2, Genesis never preached like SJW’s. Here they tap into the effects of the British economy on the daily lives of Englishmen and dress it up in prog legend. It starts on notes of sheer beauty and revs up thunderously.



8. Cul-de-Sac. 1980. One of those hidden album gems that for whatever reason gets underplayed. Think “Ultraviolet” from U2’s Achtung Baby. Both songs are incredibly catchy but not in a commercial way. Both were eclipsed by the album’s more arresting points, in this case the six-song Duke suite which monopolized concert time. “Cul-de-Sac” is also sandwiched by two ballads, which aren’t nearly as strong but do have a way of silencing the song. It’s a parable about extinction and the need to evolve. Face-value, it’s about dinosaurs (“You know you’re on the way out/It’s just a matter of time/You thought you’d rule the world forever”/etc.), but really about the “dinosaur” prog bands like Genesis who might resist changing trends. You can almost hear this song as a warning to fans that Duke would be the band’s last prog album.


The Colony of Slippermen

9. The Lamia – The Colony of Slippermen. 1974. I keep hoping for a musical genius to write a book about The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Two years ago The New Yorker did a pretty good write up, calling it the The “Ulysses” of Concept Albums, but we really need an in-depth scholarly analysis of Rael’s journey through the demented purgatory that only Peter Gabriel could have imagined. The final act is the strongest and most demented. First when Rael enters the pool of the Lamias; they caress him and eat his flesh until his blood kills them. Then when he comes to the colony of the deformed Slippermen who are ruled by lust, and he avoids joining them by getting castrated by a maniacal doctor. In a memorable segment the doctor places Rael’s genitals in a tube which is then stolen by a raven. These two songs back-to-back are my favorite part of Rael’s journey, both musically and conceptually.


Dance on a Volcano

10. Dance on a Volcano. 1976. A Trick of the Tail is doomed to stand in the lamb’s shadow. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a very good album on its own right, and a solid first effort without Peter Gabriel. In the case of “Dance on a Volcano”, it’s the only group composition and clearly the album’s best, with a soundscape and measured tempo that still sounds futuristic after 40 years. It’s about taking extreme risks, and as usual one senses the band is offering a commentary on its own musical trials. In terms of sound, the song is a near microcosm of the album on whole. Just as every song on A Trick of the Tail is remarkably different, so the segments of “Dance” make surprising jumps without losing its cohesion. It’s brilliant, and a fiery way indeed of announcing a new era for the band.


The Light Dies Down on Broadway

11. The Light Dies Down on Broadway. 1974. After the unpleasant business with the Slippermen comes the title track reprise. I consider “Light” much superior to “Lamb” and it’s the understated crux of the album. Despite the fact that his brother John abandoned him twice and kept refusing to help him, Rael rescues him from drowning. Had he ignored him and escaped through the sky-light back to New York City, he would have presumably started the whole chain of events of the story over again. By saving his brother he is freed from the weirdest purgatory ever concocted — single handedly by Peter Gabriel, though this is actually the one song (out of the album’s 23) that he didn’t write. I’d never have guessed if you hadn’t told me.


Home by the Sea

12. Home by the Sea – Second Home by the Sea. 1983. Along with “Mama”, this prog throwback redeems an album that otherwise whores for the ’80s. It’s a ghost story about storytelling; a thief breaks into a haunted home by the sea and is imprisoned by ghosts who need to share stories: “Sit down, sit down/As we relive our lives in what we tell you”. Pictures come to life, etc. The keyboard efforts blanket the song in an ethereal quality that marks an appropriate end point, as I always think of it, to the band’s greatness. Whenever the second instrumental piece winds down, my heart sinks in bittersweetness. With “Home by the Sea”, the band was essentially reliving its own life before turning the page to “Illegal Alien” and the top-40 world of Invisible Touch.


The Fountain of Salmacis

13. The Fountain of Salmacis. 1971. I have a peculiar relationship with this one. It seems somehow sentient — that the music is working against the band’s intentions with the music, or pushing out on its own terms. That’s the feeling I had when I first heard it dozing in a half-waking state on my couch, and it’s the way I’ve heard it ever since. It’s the best final track on any Genesis album (aside from the seven-part “Supper’s Ready”), and has fun with Greek mythology. The story is about Hermaphroditus who was seduced by the nymph Salmacis, drank her water and became fused with her. (Which of course is where “hermaphrodite” comes from.) This song is a mindworm (quite different from a catchy earworm) that stays in my head for a long time.

and then there

Burning Rope

14. Undertow – Burning Rope. 1978. These tracks don’t run in sequence, but to me they’ve always seem connected and they’re damn good songs besides. “Undertow” is a plea to make the most of life, while “Burning Rope” shows the consequences of taking that advice too far. In the latter, the attempt to achieve something special (reaching for the moon) results in a distance and disharmony from others which can’t be undone. The first is a ballad — the best Genesis ballad ever — and the second is the longest piece on the album channeling prog and nervous bolts of energy. Prog was going out of fashion this late in the ’70s, but the band didn’t let go entirely as they evolved, and thank the gods for it.


Man on the Corner

15. Man on the Corner. 1981. Abacab is the definition of a just-so album. It’s not bad, but it’s not especially good either. It took a commendable stab at a synth-based approach as the band tried adapting to the ’80s, and it puts me in mind of the way Rush also turned to synths as it turned from its ’70s prog roots. Rush did it very well; Genesis less so. The songs on Abacab feel rather dry and by-the-numbers, with the single exception of this rogue track about a lonely man on the corner. The synths are effectively haunting for a change, as Phil Collins cries out for a homeless man on the street who does everything he can to get attention but fails. The song is even better live, and I linked to the New York performance.


The Carpet Crawlers

16. The Carpet Crawlers. 1974. One of the band’s most dreamlike songs, possibly the most atmospheric, and certainly the most distinguished. Reason being that Peter Gabriel wrote the music as well as the lyrics (music was usually written by the other band members, while Gabriel supplied the lyrics), and the music is minimalist in a way never heard before in the Gabriel years. There’s even a chorus. It’s a transitory point in the story where Rael enters a red carpeted corridor and sees people on their knees crawling towards a door at the end of the hall. This song has been so widely loved that it was remade in 1999, a bastardized version with choppy synths and cheap inflections. Stick with the original.


Behind the Lines

17. Behind the Lines – Duchess. 1980. For a long time I thought these were one song, because my homemade cassette had the tracks mislabeled. It turns out I wasn’t far off. Both were originally intended as part of a 30-minute suite, along with “Guide Vocal,” “Turn It on Again,” “Dukes Travels,” and “Dukes End.” They go well together in any case. “Behind the Lines” is about a guy so consumed by the book he’s reading that he can’t tell the difference between the story and his own reality (the TV will effect him likewise in “Turn It on Again”). “Duchess” then tells of a woman’s rise and fall from musical fame, which some have interpreted as an embarrassing metaphor for the Genesis band in the ’90s. At first she plays with concern for her artistry and doesn’t give a shit about pleasing crowds, but as fame sets in she sells out and soon “nobody calls for more.” This is a strong double feature of loneliness, isolation and failure.


A Trick of the Tail

18. A Trick of the Tail. 1976. Even on an album that seems to pride itself on dissimilar songs, the title track is especially anomalous. Which is no surprise given that it was originally written for the Foxtrot album back in ’72 and thus is a sort of homage to the mythic prog narratives the band was starting to shed at this point. It’s mournful and upbeat at the same time, and incredibly catchy, telling of a beast who leaves his kingdom and enters the human world, where he’s captured and put on display as a freak. Originally it was surely just a tale of alienation, but some have seen it as a sly parting blow at Peter Gabriel’s abrupt departure: “He left and let nobody know”. Who knows, it’s a great song in any case.


The Cinema Show

19. The Cinema Show. 1973. This eleven-minute piece joins a 12-string guitar duet to a keyboard solo at the end that has become legendary. It remained a concert favorite even after Peter Gabriel left, and even when the band under Phil Collins decided to finally drop it, Tony Banks kept performing the keyboard section as part of the “In the Cage” medley (which you can hear on Three Sides Live) — at every one of their concerts throughout the ’80s. It’s easily one of the album’s best, and many fans would consider it heresy for being outside my top ten, but for me, the less widely praised Battle of Epping Forest is the true masterpiece track of Selling England by the Pound.

and then there

Follow You Follow Me

20. Follow You Follow Me. 1978. The song that started it all for me. I heard it on Rock 101, Manchester (my refuge from top-40, back in the day), and the next day rushed out to by the album. This song actually did make the top-40; it was the band’s first world-wide hit. But it’s not commercial, and has such a groovy simplicity that makes a fitting exit point on what is for me the most nostalgic album of my lifetime. To many fans of the Peter Gabriel era, this song was perceived as the deepest treason, but that’s rubbish. The song shows the band evolving, not devolving, though the latter would certainly become true by the mid-’80s. At this point they were just trying to make themselves more accessible, especially to female audiences. It’s a haunting lullaby that hasn’t lost its magic.