On May 1, 2007, Rush’s 19th studio album, Snakes & Arrows, was released to stores in the United States. In anticipation of this event, I took the day off so that I could buy the album and listen to it to my heart’s content. I also got a 2-hour massage while I was at it. If the massage was sublime (and it was), then the album was splendid, marvelous, and utterly refreshing.
Because I only became a devoted Rush fan in the last few years, Snakes & Arrows has been my first real experience with a brand new, studio-made album of new Rush material. It has been billed as a work dealing largely with issues of faith, religion, and spirituality – topics that, most of you know, are very close to my heart. The very title, Snakes & Arrows, is a reference to an ancient Hindu game detailing the ups and downs of spiritual and material life. Needless to say, I anticipated the release of this album for quite some time.
So far, it has not disappointed. I think it may be Rush’s best album in 20 years. There are also several songs/moments on the album that come pretty darn close to being downright bluesy – something I’ve never heard in a Rush song before.
The first song on the album, Far Cry, was released to radio and the Internet back in March, and is probably the most radio-friendly song on the album. It has an upbeat sound with the alternating time signature stop-beats that Rush is so famous for. It also has a chord in one of the primary riffs that is clearly a reference to an old epic song of Rush’s, the 18-minute masterpiece Hemispheres, from 1979. The lyrics of Far Cry lament the state of the world today. “It’s a far cry from the world we thought we’d inherit.” Later in the song: “Whirlwind life of faith and betrayal/rise in anger/fall back and repeat.”
Track two, Armor and Sword, is a more relaxed song with several moments of solo acoustic guitar and voice, mixed in with a driving verse. It discusses the way that our emotional refuges frequently serve to hurt, rather than help. “What should have been our armor becomes a sharp and angry sword,” and, “No one gets to their heaven without a fight.”
Workin’ Them Angels, track three, is a set of lyrics first written in Neil Peart’s book “Traveling Music,” which details a week-long car trip that Neil took, and the music he listened to along the way (Neil is Rush’s drummer, and also their lyricist). If I recall correctly, the title was taken from a conversation he overheard in some out-of-the-way town where one person told another that they had been “workin’ them angels.” “All of my life I’ve been workin’ them angels, riding and driving and living so close to the edge. Workin’ them angels overtime.”
The Larger Bowl is subtitled “a pantoum,” and I admit I had to look the word up. A pantoum is a Malay poetic form in which the second and fourth verses of a quatrain (a four-verse stanza) are repeated as the first and third verses of the next quatrain. At this early stage, The Larger Bowl is one of my favorite songs on the album. It is relaxed and laid back, largely acoustic, and the lyrics, because of their repetitious nature, have a gentle, lilting feel. There's also a timely and well-crafted guitar solo toward the end. “The golden one, or scarred from birth/some things can never be changed/such a lot of pain on this earth/it’s somehow so badly arranged.”
Spindrift is the fifth track on the album, and although the meaning of this word is evident after you read the lyrics, I looked it up as well. It refers to ocean spray that gets blown into misty circles by a strong wind. This is probably the darkest song on the album, musically, and perhaps even lyrically.
“As the waves crash in
On the Western shore
It makes me feel uneasy
The spray that’s torn away
Is an image of the way I feel.”
Track six is the first of three instrumentals on the album. Titled The Main Monkey Business, it is a 6-minute song with a nice groove that displays, like all their songs, Rush's instrumental virtuosity.
Track seven, The Way the Wind Blows, has probably the most straightforward, no punches pulled lyrics on the whole album. It’s also an early contender for my favorite song:
“Now it’s come to this
It’s like we’re back in the Dark Ages
From the Middle East to the Middle West
It’s a world of superstition.”
“Wide-eyed armies of the faithful
Pray, and pass the ammunition.”
“Hallow speeches of mass deception
Like crusaders in an unholy alliance
It’s a plague that resists all science.”
“It seems to leave them partly blind
And they leave no child behind
While evil spirits haunt their sleep
While shepherds bless and count their sheep.”
Need I say more about this song? This is why I love this band. The music to this one is great, too, and the opening riff is so bluesy it could have been taken straight off a Stevie Ray Vaughan album.
The eighth song on the album is a solo acoustic guitar instrumental called Hope. It is a great example of Alex Lifeson’s virtuosity and feel for the guitar. The liner notes to the song state that Alex wrote it “all by his own self.”
Track nine, Faithless, is another song with strong, straightforward lyrics. This is the song that many traditionally believing Rush fans will bristle at. “I don’t have faith in faith/I don’t believe in belief/you can call me faithless/but I still cling to hope.” “Like a flower in the desert/that only blooms at night/I will quietly resist.”
Bravest Face is probably the only song on the album that, at this point, I would call “average.” It’s a fine song, but there is just nothing in it that strikes a chord, emotionally, with me. It’s got a nice chorus, however, and I do like the lyrical refrain, “Though we may have precious little, it’s still precious.”
Track eleven, Good News First, is another blues-inspired song that almost has a ghostly, underwater feel to it. Geddy sings the verses with an unusual warble that sounds a little odd at first, but grows on you with time. “Some would say they never fear a thing/well I do/and I’m afraid enough for both of us/me and you.”
Track twelve is the third and final instrumental on the album, and, in my opinion, the best. Titled Malignant Narcissism, it has a funky, hard rocking beat with a lot of great drum and bass work. Probably their best instrumental since 1981’s YYZ.
The final song, We Hold On, carries on the Rush tradition of closing albums with a very good song. After twelve previous songs that are often dark, pessimistic, and angry, this song is upbeat and ends the album on a positive note. The lyrics are also disturbingly relevant to my life and experiences:
“How many times
Do we chafe against the repetition
Straining against a fate
measured out in coffee breaks?”
“How many times
Do we swallow our ambitions
Long to give up the same old way
Find another road to take?”
“Keep holding on so long
‘Cause there’s a chance
That we might not be so wrong
We could be down and gone
But we hold on.”
Definitely a set of lyrics I need to hear right now, and definitely an important message for anyone struggling (like the Hindu game the album is named after) with the ups and downs of spiritual and material life.
I think there is a little in this album for everyone. The lyrics are powerful and relevant, the music is varied and drawn from a wide variety of musical styles, Geddy’s voice sounds great, and the playing is, as always, superb, tight, and virtuosic.
I highly recommend it.