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Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway CD (album) cover

THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY

Genesis

 

Symphonic Prog

4.31 | 3145 ratings

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SeeHatfield
5 stars "If you think that it's pretentious, you've been taken for a ride..."

Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a sprawling double album, recounts the fitful odyssey of Rael, a Nuyorican punk, through a sort of surreal underworld. Narratively, it's a bit of a shaggy dog; to say that it does not hang together would be an understatement. The closest thing I can think of among rock albums would be The Who's Tommy, but that fabled "rock opera" boasts more characters and points of view and a real apotheosis (despite its fractured plot, it benefits from having songs sung by Tommy, about Tommy, and to Tommy). Tommy may not make much sense, but its glorious end feels right, a sort of resolution in the heart (if not exactly plot-wise). The Lamb, on the other hand, comes across as a series of fantastical setpieces that are not quite unified by the constant that is Rael, whose first-person voice carries most of the numbers. The story drags through the second half, losing steam despite moments of bizarre inventiveness (such as the scatological satire of wounded masculinity that is the "Colony of Slippermen"). The climax is severely attenuated on what would have been, in the age of vinyl, the album's fourth side. Rael's big moment of self-realization -- rescuing his brother John from the rapids -- is dragged out across three tracks, which on the plus side means a lot of cool instrumental work, but on the other hand means a diffuse, dithering ending, too diluted to justify the hour and half of musical drama that comes before. You can practically hear the air seeping from the tire. Peter Gabriel's lyrics and elaborate program notes (the whole story apparently was his idea) don't focus to a point. The album's final song, "it," offers not an apotheosis but only a teasing reminder of how willfully odd the whole story has been, as well as, perhaps, a nose-thumbing rejoinder to the band's critics. For an album filled with passion and fireworks, the Lamb ends on a feckless, self-amused note, taunting listeners with hints of profundity that may just be playful nonsense. Imagine The Odyssey ending with a rousing rendition of "Glass Onion" and you've got the right idea. This is meta-prog, archly self-aware, with a bit of defiant fuck-you built into its final fade.

Musically, though, the Lamb labors mightily to pull everything together -- and is gobsmackingly brilliant, the result of five young players shooting the moon. The music lends the story atmosphere and some kind of wholeness, and great bits are everywhere. Genesis never sounded tougher than on thundering tracks like "Fly on a Windshield," "Back in N.Y.C.," and "Counting Out Time" (they wouldn't get that tough again until the noise-gated cacophony of Abacab). A certain rhythmic pattern recurs across several tracks, starting with the "Broadway Melody of 1974": pounding heartbeats from Mike Rutherford's Taurus bass pedals (one-two, one-two) and heavy, Bonham-worthy drumming by Phil Collins. This vamping, lub-dub rhythm becomes a sort of transitional device and also provides the pulse of "In the Cage" and the opening of "Back in N.Y.C." Melodic recaps across the album are few and subtle; most obviously, the title song gets reworked in the climactic "The Light Dies Down on Broadway," which echoes part of "The Lamia" as well. But the Lamb is mostly notable for fresh invention from start to finish, as the music bounces from spoken-word (that "Broadway Melody") to cluttered art song ("The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging") to mock-pop ("Counting Out Time") to near-musique concrète (okay, maybe not, but "The Waiting Room" sure sounds concrète to me) to Eno-esque ambience ("Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats") to, yes, a few moments of old-school melodic prog ("The Lamia" could almost have come from Nursery Cryme). Extended instrumental workouts à la Selling England by the Pound are few, or rather are scattered here and there without a standalone epic to frame them (there's no "Cinema Show" here). But the band is constantly changing tack. This is a dynamic album, a feast of writing and playing -- and the sound is, blessedly, more muscular than on previously Genesis records.

I sense a sort of tug-of-war here, musically. There's a fair amount of classically-tinged, keyboard-driven prog: dig "Anyway," with its arpeggiated piano punctuated by crashing power chords, or, again, "The Lamia" -- more moody piano, a wash of mellotron too, and then a fade that mixes spooky organ, Steve Hackett's melodic guitar (a great solo), and one of the album's few instances of Gabriel playing flute. Then again, there are spiky pop miniatures here that seem more purely Gabriel-esque (once more, "Counting Out Time" is a good example) and foreshadow the witty subversions of hard rock on his first two solo albums. In any case, the music and lyrics don't interrelate simply. Gabriel's arch humor is everywhere, with associative wordplay, labored punning, internal rhymes, and, again and again, throwaway cleverness. Despite the overall weirdness and occasional sense of spiritual hunger (as in the hypnotic "Carpet Crawlers"), the lyrics push against Genesis's early reputation for Romantic airiness and fantasy. There's a determined worldliness about the whole thing.

More than anything, the Lamb's narrative and lyrics reflect a twenty-something British genius's obsession with the idea of America. This is most obvious in the nominal NYC setting and the "Broadway Melody," with its dated references to Lenny Bruce and Caryl Chessman, etc. Yet it's also implied in the record's references to other pop music: The Drifters' "On Broadway," of course, but also Del Shannon's "Runaway" and plenty more, from "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" to "It's Only Rock 'N' Roll" (more Americanized British stuff!). It seems clear that Gabriel wanted the Lamb to be cosmopolitan and in dialogue with other rock and pop, not something to be filed away as a monument to British schoolboy eccentricity.

Ironically, American audiences didn't have a chance to get to know the music before the band embarked on its Lamb tour, an ambitious and costly marathon that shattered the group's camaraderie and left Genesis in debt. In a nutshell, the Lamb was the great divider, the project that wrecked the band's collaborative ethos and drove Gabriel away. You can hear Gabriel and the band pulling apart on the album -- or at least I imagine I can, informed by what I know about ensuing events. The members of Genesis have never quite been able to own this project in retrospect, due to the terrible stresses and wounded friendships it caused. In its time, then, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was a mad, glorious failure. The story, again, is a mess, but that's okay with me -- I like art that aims high, even when it falls down. In any case, the album sounds great, and despite its longueurs as a piece of storytelling, it's one of the indispensable prog records, a musical treasure trove, and the supreme test of what Gabriel and Genesis could do together. Genesis would never be this weird again.

(I suppose I should rate this as 4/5 rather than 5 stars, due to its fizzling story and lack of payoff, but the music is so damn good and the album so historic that only 5 will do...)

SeeHatfield | 5/5 |

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