If 1970’s Trespass was too solemn, the following year would see Genesis double down on their quirky side in Nursery Cryme. That title is more than a little foreboding, especially since the unnecessary “y” makes it sounds like an embarassing hair metal record or something. With two new recruits joining the party, guitar wizard Steve Hackett and some guy named Phil Collins, Genesis was gearing up for the first major arrangement that would see it immortalized as a prog mainstay. Thus the group began developing its style to create a mix of snark, myth, bombast, monstrosity and madness. Nursery Cryme marks the phase where Genesis hones in on what makes it unique, rather than embracing the generic post-hippy stuff that you could get elsewhere.
Simply put, it’s a weird, lopsided album. Combine impish schoolboy giggling with some stone-faced mysticism and surprising attempts at pathos, and you’ll get the definition of a “mixed bag.” Some consider it a masterpiece, others are more critical, and the production value especially seems to have come under fire. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of toe-flavored tea, that’s for sure. However, its oddness is part of what makes it so interesting. Genesis would eventually establish its own voice among a crowded prog scene, and this is where they add an undeniable zip to their interest in myths and staggeringly long songs. Things hum along here in a way they didn’t before.
From the delirious green and yellows gatefold cover to the tones of the songs themselves, this album feels like a mad trip. Let’s dive in, shall we?
The Musical Box: I have a confession to make. I’m not typically a big fan of this one, and, not having heard it for a while, was tempted to give it a mere two stars. For most true Genesis-heads, that might border on heresy. “The Musical Box” would go on to become one of the band’s signature tunes, so much so that there’s a whole cover band named after this very song (whom I once saw perform it, as luck would have it). I’m not sure why I’ve been so lukewarm on it. Maybe it’s the story, about a decapitated Victorian boy who returns as a horny old ghost and tries to seduce his former playmate. Peter Gabriel’s thoroughly creepy old man voice and the accompanying mask are effectively off-putting, so much so that it distracts from the rest of the admirable guitar work and mounting tonal intensity.
However, this gets a big bump in the rankings for one reason and one reason alone: Phil Collins. In 2016, it’s really easy to make fun of the omnipresent Collins, but back in the day he was a true badass, believe it or not, and this song gives him a great introduction. You can’t hear it well on the Spotify version (at least until the end), so check out the clip below and follow along with Phil’s great percussion work and odd yeow yeow noises.
See? The way he works in sync with Peter, especially, is noteworthy giving the split that would come a few albums later (spoiler alert!). You could listen to just his part of the song and still get everything you need out of it, as he totally nails intricate rhythm changes and tricky lyric cues. Because of that, and because of its importance in Genesis’ prog history, this song deserves a higher ranking, which it shall have.
Ranking: **** (four out of five)
For Absent Friends: Look at that! A complete song in less than three minutes! I have no idea if it was played on the radio much (or at all), but this is the first Genesis song of this era that feels “normal people friendly.” I was a little hard on the band’s folkier song “Dusk” last album, so I’ll make up for it by saying this is a pleasant breather placed between two phantasmagoric beasts. You might say that makes the slice of life lyrics about a bittersweet “widowed pair” visiting church feel insincere. After all, this is coming after a song with lines like “the nurse will tell you lies/Of the kingdom beyond the skies”. I, however, think of it as the opposite of “Musical Box,” a song celebrating the comforts people get from church after loss, meager though they might be. Kind of like “Eleanor Rigby,” sung with hope instead of lamentation. Not much else to say. It’s kind of amazing that the band could produce such a complete song in so short a time. I think that’s Philly C singing in there? You can hear his isolated vocals here, thanks to one enterprising YouTuber. Get used to it.
Ranking: *** (three out of five)
The Return of the Giant Hogweed: How can you not like a song about man-eating plants? The opening, with Banks and Collins both delivering a kickass riff, is one of the best moments of the entire album and makes me wish Muse would hurry up and cover this song already. From there on, the track this most resembles is “The Knife,” with Gabriel yelling violent commands while the keyboards pound and mock-fanfare plays. The United Kingdom is ravaged by the titular vegetable menace, thanks to “a Victorian explorer” who foolishly brought it back to the royal family from a Russian marsh. Because “fashionable country gentlemen” let it grow, it’s now unstoppable, “immune to all our herbicidal battering,” even though it’s also apparently defenseless at night. Both the mock-seriousness and the jaunty rhythm makes this a little easier of a listen than the devastating “Knife,” and the way the different instruments weave in and out keeps your attention. The new kids get a chance to show off their stuff, later, as Hackett and Collins (I think) collaborate on a little jig-like section that almost sounds like a Dropkick Murphys tune. Like all great stories about man-eating plants, it ends with humanity being consumed, just in case you thought the band was getting soft, so don’t worry. The conclusion sounds like the end of a monster movie, which is, of course, perfect. I also love the way Gabriel introduces this song with a scream before going completely bananas in one of the live versions.
Ranking: ***** (five out of five)
Seven Stones: I can’t remember when I first noticed that a lot of prog Genesis songs don’t even bother to rhyme. It’s interesting that so many can go by without you even realizing that instead of A-B-A-B, the rhyme scheme is A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H etc. “Seven Stones” isn’t the best example of a more rhyme-centric song, not at all, but it is interesting to notice more among the lyrics. Anyway, has early warning signs of some of the bad habits of Trespass, with an organ opening and the line “I heard the old man tell his taaaaaale…” Fortunately, “Seven Stones” turns out to be much tighter and more interesting than something like “Visions of Angels.” Banks is certainly Banksing it up under the main melody, almost to its detriment. We get some more AHHHHHHs but they’re used far more effectively, and the drumming continues to be suitably impressive and powerful without drowning everything out. This is also a good example of a Genesis prog song with lots of clunky lyrics that still don’t feel overwritten, especially with Gabriel’s steady delivery. The dreaded flute is also well-integrated. When all is said and done, though, there are more memorable Genesis songs in this vein. It’s another example of being pretty and well-made and ultimately lackluster.
Ranking: *** (three out of five)
Harold the Barrel: Here’s a weird one, a deliberately obnoxious vaudevillian jingle about a madman who ends up falling to his doom (presumably). An eccentric bloke makes a series of bad choices and it culminates with a whole crowd begging him not to jump from a building. Though it’s a little ambiguous, given that the last line is “take a running jump,” I think we can hazard a guess as to what happens. This song is pretty chaotic, mostly in a good way, and the refrain is catchy even if you have no idea what’s going on. By using it to split up the achingly earnest “Seven Stones” and “Harlequin,” Genesis were at least pacing things way better on this album. Don’t like five-minute Mellotron odysseys? It’s time for something completely different. The thumping piano and different voices makes this sound a lot like “Lady Madonna,” and the slower part where we segue into the title character’s inner monologue on the ledge is kind of like Harry Chapin’s “Sniper” (though mercifully shorter). Some are definitely going to find Gabriel’s nasally tone too much to take. I like the jittery piano, unexpected choral parts (“You must be jokiiiiiing!”) and especially the final melancholy tone fadeout. It’s a nice bookend to the cymbal sound at the beginning, both of them signals that this is something out of the ordinary, like the rise and fall of a curtain. Whether or not you like it, this song is going to stick in your memory, which is more than I can say for the likes of “Seven Stones.”
Ranking: *** (three out of five)
Harlequin: Jeez, Genesis. Stop it with the three-minute long songs, already, people are going to think you’re, like, a regular band or something. Since I gave “Absent Friends” a pass, I’m laying the hammer down again for this. It’s still not as loose as Trespass but it’s awfully forgettable. I think this is supposed to be a poetic description of the sky after a storm: if you read the lyrics straight they kind of sound like one of Gollum’s riddles from The Hobbit, like they’re describing something we’re supposed to guess. Aside from that it’s all cloying harmonies and sunshiney guitar. I’m saving my one-star ratings for the truly awful, so this one gets two for being merely meh. Still, it’s interesting again to note that the band has its roots as deep in pop as it does in prog. At any rate, it was making this kind of music at the same time as longer epics like “Musical Box,” which is impressive in its own right.
Ranking: ** (two out of five)
The Fountain of Salmacis: If nothing else, Nursery Cryme‘s setlist gives us a much faster-paced selection than what came before. Even the long songs feel more focused. I love the spooky opening to this one, with the shimmering cymbals and wandering keyboard synth. From there, we’re plunged into the tale of Salmacis the nymph, who tricks Hermaphroditus into merging with her into one being, from which we may get a certain word you can probably figure out. Yup, it’s a song based on a Greek myth, and unlike Seven Stones, nothing rhymes here at all. This one has fine instrumentation weighed down by ponderous lyrics that feel like Gabriel’s just reading from a high school copy of Ovid. I like the echoing choruses a good deal, and the drums once again prevent this from getting too sleepy. I keep wanting to call this “The Font of Salmacis” because it sounds more classical. They really missed a golden opportunity there.
Ranking: **** (four out of five)
Conclusion: The more I listened to this album, the more I liked it. Things that I found disposable at first proved to be far more complex the more I paid attention. It’s undeniably step in the right direction after the growing pains of Trespass, and it’s probably the Genesis prog album most obviously influenced by the Beatles, whom I already referenced twice in this post alone, if you were paying attention. Adding Hackett and Collins to the group, both of whom have lots to do here, gave the sound a lot more personality and energy, necessary for dealing with songs as long as 10 minutes. Though there are dull moments, they don’t weigh this album down like they did on the previous one. At their proggiest, Genesis would combine all the strengths of other groups in the genre (King Crimson’s experimentalism, Jethro Tull’s twee humor, Floyd’s darkness, ELP’s statelieness, Rush’s nerdiness) into one distinct blend. Nursery Cryme moves us further in that direction and prepares us for what’s to come. It’s also apparently one of Geddy Lee’s favorite albums, so I can’t diss it too much.