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It’s been a long time in coming, but Rush’s twentieth studio album, Clockwork Angels, is now out. It’s their first concept album since Hemispheres, the third in a trilogy, was released in 1978. There’s an allusion to that trilogy’s first album, 2112, in the cover art of a clock that reads 9:12. But Rush as a group and Neil Peart as a person have been through a lot since the seventies, and what hasn’t killed them has made their work deeper.

The story starts with a young man in a clockwork and steampunk world who seeks his place in the machinery. Everything works according to the plan of a Watchmaker, the creator of the best of all possible worlds. If that’s sounding familiar, you’re correct. Peart has layered a lot into the writing, especially the mechanistic view of Newtonian physics and Voltaire’s satirical novel, Candide. In the aforementioned trilogy, he presented a similar young man who struggled against an authoritarian society. This time, the journey is to find meaning in determinism. And yes, Peart has thought about that before, most notably in “Free Will” from Permanent Waves. His earlier studies were rebellious and youthful, the ideas and yearnings of someone who wants to be himself. Clockwork Angels comes to a different answer.

The narrator leaves his family’s farm and travels to the big city to get caught up in its chaos–an irony in an ordered world, but he was “brought up to believe” that everything has a reason. He takes a job with a carnival, gets mistaken for an anarchist, and escapes to the edge of his civilization and beyond to seek the mythical Cibola, the City of Gold. But the land is frozen, and he’s forced to turn back to the ordered world. He crosses the ocean, only to be shipwrecked in a storm.

The remaining four songs look back on the narrator’s life from old age. He declares that he would change nothing in his adventures “because I made them / the best I could / and that’s enough to say.” He finds that his old beliefs are no longer with him, that he must release his grudges and, in an allusion to Voltaire, tend to the small details of his life–referred to as his garden.

In the seventies, the hero of the three concept albums tears down his society and forces an apocalypse to bring about a new order. In Clockwork Angels, he seeks personal change and ends up learning that the most we can do is appreciate what we’re given. That mature perspective is a significant thematic change for Peart’s writing, something hinted at in “Faithless” and other songs in Snakes and Arrows.

“Headlong Flight,” the song that I quoted above, retains some measure of defiance. No, perhaps responsibility for himself is the better term. It’s a song that reminds me of “My Way,” made famous by Frank Sinatra. The hero tells us that he has learned to fight, love, feel, and steal, and wishes to “live it all again.”

Who is responsible for all? In the first part of “BU2B” (Brought Up to Believe), we learn the prevailing doctrine that it was the Watchmaker’s work. The second part of this tells us that the narrator has lost his belief in that, but the final song, “The Garden,” considers the question to be one that we can’t answer for certain. What we can know is summed up in the chorus:

The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect,
So hard to earn, so easily burned,
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect.

We are told that “time is still the infinite jest.” Our freedom, then, is to choose to get the joke and laugh or be its subject.

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Clockwork Angels will also be released as a novel by Kevin J. Anderson in September. Look for a discussion of it some time after that. To read more of what I have to say about Rush, have a look here.

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