A week or so ago I had the privilege of writing about what I consider to be one of the few songs of the rock era (that glorious era starting ca. 1955 with the release of Black Board Jungle) to have come close to reaching perfection. I don’t mean perfection without flaw, I mean perfection as the attainment of purpose, a thing reaching its end, the kind of perfection that is fully attainable only in the realm of the heavenly spheres. In the here and now, we reach for it, but we know we can never quite touch it. Still, we don’t despair at our failings, we glory in the possibilities. At least those of us who love prog want so very badly for those we love and admire to reach it. When they strive, we feel the weight of their struggle and their achievement.
That first post dealt with Rush’s “Natural Science,” the final track on Permanent Waves. Really, this is how it should have been. After all, if Neil Peart hasn’t spent his adult life striving for excellence (perhaps, perfection) in all things, no artist has.
This week, I have the equal privilege of writing about another masterpiece, one written a bit closer to the present day. In fact, much more than a bit. It’s only five years old. But, what a song. Even though we have thirty-four years of hindsight regarding Natural Science and only a half decade for the subject of this post. . . well, it works.
So, for my second progarchist track that comes so close to perfection is the first track of The Tangent’s 2009 album, volume V in The Tangent Chronicles, Down and Out in Paris and London (Insideout Music). Entitled “Where Are They Now?,” the epic takes the listener on one very intense journey from betrayal to regret to repentance and, finally, to a well-earned forgiveness.
And, of course, who else but Andy Tillison could have authored such a song? Tillison is, after all, our beloved prog hero who offers the world, so openly, equal parts the modern and post-modern muse, the chronicler, and the critic in all that he does. Though deeply skeptical of almost all things unworldly, he always presents a full earnestness of emotion, an intellectuality rarely seen in this world, and a passion for all things good and loving.
Not surprisingly, Tillison’s lyrics are some of his best ever, offering Waste Land-like vignettes of a number of different persons, including a stock broker and trader; a former Spitfire pilot; and a physician.
Tillison’s title comes from George Orwell’s first lengthy book, a fictionalized autobiographical account of poverty and injustice in Europe. Though the two works are separated by seventy-six years, they have almost everything in common. As Tillison would do with his greatest work (so far), Le Sacre du Travail, a reconsideration of 1913 and Stravinsky, Down and Out in Paris and London puts a new spin on Orwell’s great work dealing with post-Great War betrayal, financial collapse, the voicelessly downtrodden, and the desire of demagogues to capture the misery for their own nefarious purposes.
In many ways, Tillison has the right to claim the mantle of Orwell. They share a similar outlook on life, on politics, on social justice (and the deep failings of our wealthy society to deal with its problems), and on the sacred essence of the human person as well as of the written word.
Take the following lyrics from the opening of Where are They Now?:
Caught in the lights in the underpass
A guy who needs no name
Lights a cigarette and thinks back. . .
He lost the winning game.
The Range Rover is long gone now,
The folks he bought and sold
Are transitory commodities
When investors turn their eyes on gold.
What gives these lyrics so much meaning is Tillison’s depth of conviction when singing them. Indeed, only he could make “Range Rover” a poetic lament, a symbol that ties together the depths of depravity in the one who uses another for his own benefit.
[It’s also wonderful that Tillison references the “Winning Game” from volume II of The Tangent Chronicles, The World That We Drive Through. But, this is a side note.]
It’s hard not to love Tillison’s voice as—in his vocals—he always matches the seriousness of the music and the lyrics perfectly.
This proves as true in Where are They Now’s beginning as in its end. The song ends with imagery that could be taken literally or symbolically.
Like a bolt from the blue,
Like a shot from above,
He talked with the folks from the valley below
–and found love!
This reads like the best of Greek myth. Hubris vanquished and humility and love rising superior to all things prideful.
One of the things I about progressive rock is the unexpected segues. By this, I mean, in particular, that dropping of the stomach or perhaps that explosion of soul we experience, for example, when we peer, for the first time, at Chicago from the observation platform of the Sears Tower. Genesis did this so well, especially, in their immediate post-Gabriel era. In their longer pieces, Rush mastered this as well, but no where more so than with Exit Stage Left and Broons Bane/Trees/Xanadu.
In modern prog, no bands write segues better than Big Big Train and The Tangent, though there is stellar competition out there. In Where Are They Now?, there are four of these moments—the kind that makes the stomach drop—that get me every time I listen to this outstanding work of art. Almost always these involve some interplay of guitar, keyboards, and Andy’s terrific vocals.
What strikes me most about Where are They Now?, though, is the absolute humanity of the song. In lyrics, music, and flow, this song just exudes the humane qualities Tillison so abundantly possesses. We feel sick when we realize how corrupt the former owner of the Range Rover is. We feel equally exalted and forgiving when the corrupt seek redemption and forgiveness.
Whether it’s Stravinsky, Orwell, or Tillison, this is a mark, always, of the highest accomplishments in art. It is also, to my mind, a mark of accomplishment in the race toward excellence and perfection.