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Genesis - Duke CD (album) cover

DUKE

Genesis

 

Symphonic Prog

3.50 | 1549 ratings

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SeeHatfield
4 stars The Genesis album that made me a fan.

Duke was my first Genesis album -- probably not the first one I heard, but the first I owned and the first I listened to intently. It was Duke that made me a Genesis fan.

I seem to remember first hearing Duke, on vinyl, at the house my family moved into when I was about sixteen. I turned sixteen in the spring of 1981, during the roughly year and a half between the release of Duke (spring 1980) and the release of its follow-up, Abacab (late 1981). I think I may have bought the album from the Columbia House mail-order club, but I can't quite remember. What I do remember is that, because I liked Duke, I bought Abacab as soon as it came out. At some point around then, I also got to know Phil Collins' first solo album, Face Value (released early in '81), which I also liked. I still do.

I think I like Duke as well. Truth to tell, though, just the other day I listened to all of it for the first time this century, probably the first time in more than thirty years, and was surprised to hear songs that had entirely slipped from my mind, such as Tony Banks' "Cul-de-Sac" and Mike Rutherford's "Alone Tonight" (which at first I wrongly remembered as Collins'). Hearing these songs, at once forgotten and naggingly familiar, like mementos left in an attic for a very long time, then exhumed, I felt strange, or the album seemed strange -- again. "Alone Tonight" in particular hit me in a sentimental way. I wanted to daub my eyes.

I understand prog fans balking at this and later Genesis albums, but the continual critical savaging of Duke feels misplaced. In any case, I don't understand why many PA reviewers insist on dividing individual songs into prog and non-prog. That's not how prog works, and that was never how Genesis worked. Even earlier, proggier Genesis albums had ballads, sketches, tender throwaways, and songs that didn't fit the band's reputation for epics ("For Absent Friends," "More Fool Me"). Prog is about eclecticism; that's why Steve Howe could get a roaring ovation for playing a simple guitar rag ("The Clap") at a Yes concert. That's why Side 2 of Foxtrot opens with Steve Hackett playing the Bach-influenced acoustic miniature, "Horizons." Hopping around is what prog bands do; it's the whole album or concert and its mix of sounds and styles, not the individual song, that qualifies a band as progressive. Anyway, Genesis had started, back in the late sixties, with the idea of writing quirky, Romantic pop, and always took pride in their songwriting -- including the short songs. So, ballads like "Alone Tonight" and Collins' "Please Don't Ask" can be on a prog album!

These songs, with their distressing evocations of loneliness and loss, fit in with the rest of Duke. Pitchfork's Sam Sodomsky has observed (in a very smart review) that a "theme of failure and extinction courses through" the album, and I think that's right -- that, and alienation, terrible aloneness, sadness. The stuff that some prog fans dismiss as "pop," the songs that wear their emotions on their sleeves, they absolutely fit with this. Reportedly, Banks, Collins, and Rutherford worked up many of the tracks for Duke as a multi-song suite, a prog epic, one about a little man ("Albert") who would be the protagonist much as Rael had been the hero of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. But then they decided to break the suite apart and intersperse their individual, solo-written songs for the sake of better flow and balance. I'm tempted to say that that was a good call -- not that I wouldn't enjoy an epic, a real swing for the fences, but solo-written songs like "Cul-de-Sac," Banks' haunting ballad "Heathaze," and Rutherford's hammering, disconcerting "Man of Our Times" (with its staggering drums and great cycling guitar figure) really do add something. Ditto "Please Don't Ask," Collins' tragic divorce song -- an example of truly adult pop. Yes, even the bathetic pop contributes to the sense that Duke is an honest-to-God album, a thing that hangs together.

What Duke reminds me of, really, is Rutherford's then-recent solo album, the urban-dystopic Smallcreep's Day (1980), a bittersweet record that likewise tries to balance big, proggy, conceptual movements with accessible pop. The titular epic from that album (a suite based on Peter Currell Brown's satiric novel of 1965) ends with "At the End of the Day," an aching ballad with churchy chords -- another pained evocation of loneliness, but also of love. I love that track. That's the vibe Duke often goes for: a wounded tenderness.

There's more. Late-70s to early-80s prog steered in the direction of urban alienation (dig, for example, Gentle Giant's final album, Civilian, 1980), and Duke does that too. Besides the keening love songs, Duke serves up a restive, alienated feeling; the old prog Romanticism gets an anomic, adult spin. Some of its numbers are, honestly, bleak as hell. Take "Turn It On Again," which is about isolation and obsession: a nasty inward spiral (rendered in its famously tricky 13/8 or whatever the hell meter that is). Or "Heathaze," inexplicably described in one review I read as an "uplifting" number -- clearly, the reviewer wasn't paying attention ("I feel like an alien, a stranger in an alien place"). Despite some awkwardly emjambed lyrics, that's simply a great song. Banks has never sounded bleaker.

In some ways, Duke looks back. Its instrumental finale, "Duke's Travels" / "Duke's End," which recaps earlier numbers, recalls "Los Endos" from A Trick of the Tail, another bookend piece. That's where the band waves the banner of epic prog, rounding out the album with a flourish. It's a great swirling storm of a closer: another setpiece that shows what could come of Banks and Collins jamming together. In other ways, Duke is unsentimental and worldly, dispensing with old sounds, old kit, and going for a new, in some ways less sumptuous, approach. The Mellotron is out, the Yamaha CS-80 is in. Yamaha's electric grand piano, the CP70, figures prominently. I confess, I miss the fullness of the Mellotron days, the big, rounded, choral sound. I gather lots of Genesis fans do. On the other hand, Collins' singing is exponentially stronger, gutsier, than before -- he really sounds as if he is coming out of his shell. And his drumming remains brilliantly musical (even as his first drum machine, the Roland CR-78, creeps in).

Despite the things I miss, Duke remains a grand record. Granted, Collins' radio-ready "Misunderstood," though drawn from his cathartic post-divorce Face Value demos, isn't so much emotionally raw as calculatedly slick, lifting its groove and bassline from Sly & The Family Stone's "Hot Fun in the Summertime" -- one of many examples of Phil the thieving magpie, "borrowing" and tweaking other people's hooks. It foreshadows Collins' determined move toward formula in the mid-80s. But, on Duke, it fits. Duke is, I think, much stronger than its predecessor, ...And Then There Were Three... (1978), and though Abacab would benefit from a harder, punchier sound, less smeared, more direct, I don't think any of the later Genesis albums had writing as good as Duke (me, I gave up after Three Sides Live, 1982, and Collins' second solo disc). Duke was a moment when Banks, Collins, and Rutherford rediscovered the pleasures of writing together but before they gave up high-stakes solo writing completely, that is, before they got so comfortable together that the music entailed no struggle. If the lyrical themes of Duke are sad and at times defeatist, the music aims high and sounds like the work of collaborators who are excited and surprised by their own shared efforts.

Not a bad way to learn about Genesis.

SeeHatfield | 4/5 |

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