Any band that lasts long enough eventually makes one: the Difficult Album. Whether it’s overly long, pretentious, too ambitious, marked with creative difficulties or all of the above, there’s always that one album in a band’s catalogue that exposes the tensions surging under the surface. For me, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway belongs in the same realm as The Wall, Quadrophenia, The White Album, Tales From Topographic Oceans and any other grand, complex work that creaks and groans under its own weight. There’s no doubting that some of the songs here represent the apex of the Peter Gabriel era, but it’s also, in true Difficult Album fashion, a sign of the need for change. The fact that Gabriel reportedly recorded his tracks separately from the band, White Album style, should also tell you something.
Reviewing this one has taken some preparation, for multiple reason. It’s unlike anything else in the Genesis discography in that it’s a full-fledged rock opera double album, with all the intricacy that denotes. It’s also the album I’ve seen famous Genesis cover band The Musical Box do live in its entirety, one of many amazingly specific nerdy experiences I hope to continue having.
Before I get into the track-by-track, though, there’s a few things I need to mention. Lamb tells the story of a Puerto Rican boy from New York City named Rael, on a surreal psychosexual journey to rescue his brother and ascend to adulthood. On the one hand, it’s actually a surprisingly progressive depiction since Rael’s Puerto Rican heritage isn’t used to define him in a stereotypical way and is never mentioned in the lyrics (aside from one cringe-inducing mention of “chocolate fingers”). He’s a person of color who represents the everyman on a universal quest, and that’s good.
Unfortunately, Gabriel also apparently saw the album as a chance to continue indulging his love of theatrical costumes, so he cast himself as Rael, including crazy eyebrows, leather jacket and, yes, brownface. That’s an unavoidable problem and Gabriel should 100 percent bear the weight of it, but the album on its own stands apart from the stage show, even though the show contained a heavy amount of visuals that helped make the story (marginally) more comprehensible. My advice would be to just listen to the album and ignore the live performance unless you feel compelled to seek it out.
And that’s the one other point I should get across: this review will be about the album and its music and lyrics, not the massive liner notes that come with it. I have neither the time nor the sanity to delve into the daunting text that accompanied the record, but if you feel like giving it a crack, go look it up. That being said, I may reference elements of the backstory as we go.
Alright, let’s put the pedal to the proto-metal and give this baby a spin.
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway: Say what you want about Genesis, they certainly waste no time in dropping the name of the album. It’s literally the first line sung after a fluttery Tony Banks intro that gets looser as the drums break down and we hear a new singing style from Gabriel. Nearly every song on this album will be dominated by ol’ Pete’s voice, but it’s a virtuosic turn from the very beginning, and you’ll notice a clear difference between this and the kind of singing he was doing before. The main purpose of this track is to plunge us straight into the narrative, introducing the protagonist, “Rael, ethereal aerosol kid” and also a lamb that is literally lying down on Broadway, in case you thought that was just a metaphor. Notice the way Gabriel’s voice and the backing behind him shifts throughout, from long bellowing to nasally whining to that sarcastic version of “On Broadway” in the outro. This song is like the album in microcosm, a bunch of things stuck together that kind of work but also feel kind of ramshackle and random and weird. Better settle in.
Rating: *** (3 out of 5)
Fly on a Windshield: After a reasonably strong opener, the album stumbles a little. This track does a good job integrating the synth into a heavy, pulsing texture, but there’s not much development here and the lyrics seem mostly like an excuse for Gabriel to throw in as many pop culture references as possible in a Dylanesque tangle rather than follow up on the scene he just set. Rael’s lost in a miasma here and with all of what’s about to follow, you probably won’t remember much of this piece. Like the title track, though, there’s some important musical foreshadowing happening here, with melodies that will come back later at crucial moments, and the soft delivery of “needles and pins” makes a nice change from the harsher vocals that came before.
Rating: ** (2out of 5)
Broadway Melody of 1974: Despite the elaborate name, this is a nothing track, less than a minute of filler music that’s probably more useful as a scene changing vamp than an actual tune. Another band would have simply tagged this on as a fadeout to the previous song and made no note of it. If your CD or record was fatally scratched and had this one track rendered unplayable you would miss nothing.
Rating: * (1 out of 5)
Cuckoo Cocoon: Here’s where things get interesting. True Genesis fans will know that this next sequence of songs is the hidden (hairless?) heart of the album, as the music actually starts to justify the convoluted concept. Narrative-wise, Rael is trapped in a mysterious dark hole somewhere and muses on what might be going on. He’s not scared yet, and part of what makes the track work is the lyrics, which actually reflect a normal thought process for once instead of Gabriel’s idea of edginess (“The only sound is water drops/I wonder where the hell I am?/Some kind of jam?”). Unlike the brutal “Fly on a Windshield,” the tone here is softer, gentler, a throwback to Trespass in a way, complete with one of the final appearances of Peter Gabriel, Master Flautist, who even gets to wrap the song up in a tidy bow at the end. Some truly beautiful piano work from tony and watery overlay on the vocals gives it a nice Sunday-morning-breakfast vibe, if you can believe it.
Rating: **** (4 out of 5)
In the Cage: As my brother once said before an epic Steven Wilson performance “hold on to your potatoes.” Here’s a case where all of the bombastic arrangements and amped up drama work in the band’s favor, creating a truly exhilarating, pounding, mesmerizing little number, depicting Rael’s growing fear and claustrophobia. For some, the indulgent keyboard solo in the middle might break the spell, but I feel like we get plugged back into the main melody so seamlessly that it’s no trouble (despite a left-field reference to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” one of many pop culture references that pop up out of nowhere throughout Lamb). Phil Collins dominates on this track as well, and would go on to do an admirable job manning vocals in a later live performance. And it all culminates in a semi-religious moment of epiphany when the cage finally breaks and Rael sees his brother, John, whom he will chase after for the rest of the album.
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)
The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging: It’s hard to really determine what qualifies as “weirdest song on the album” when you’re already dealing with magical cocoons, celestial lambs and ominous moog noises, but this is…odd. It kind of sounds like something off of a children’s record, with whistles and echoes and wacky voices, as Rael travels through a magical factory, catching another glimpse of his brother in the process. You might think that awkward title would be impossible to fit in a song but Gabriel manages it, and this is, perhaps strangest of all, one of the catchier Lamb tunes that will probably stick with you after a first listen.
Rating: *** (3 out of 5)
Back in N.Y.C.: Peter is angry! Peter is screaming! Peter is swearing! Peter is…cuddling a porcupine? All joking aside, this is a great song. Hot damn, is it great. It took me a few listens to really appreciate it, but once I did I couldn’t get enough of it, and something tells me many other Genesisians feel the same way. Rael is either transported back to his New York youth or just remembering it, but either way, we get a unique fusion of edgy vocals, relentless synth, and a bridge that’s so good it makes up for containing some of the worst lyrics in Genesis’ entire catalogue (“no time for romantic escape/when your/fluffy heart is ready for rape”? ugh). It’s fine because the final product is a unified statement of purpose, a giant middle finger to the world that’s totally unlike anything Genesis did before but still feels like the natural fit for the world of this album. Also, the lyrics on the whole are filled with unusually violent imagery, such as gasoline, razors, fires and blood, not to mention the line “IIiiii’m not full of SHIT!” so it kind of fits into the theme. If you haven’t figured out by now, Rael’s entire character is about the struggle between two personalities: the aggressive tough guy punk and the lost, sensitive child underneath, with John representing a kind of ideal self. Again and again we’ll see examples of Rael bouncing from one extreme to another. But first we have to see him shave a farm animal.
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)
Hairless Heart: I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the criticisms of Tony Banks I’ve seen is that he basically just plays scales in different speeds. Going up, going down, faster, slower, repeat. I agree to a certain extent while also conceding that this piece, essentially an instrumental scale played multiple times with different effects and a zither vibrating somewhere, is positively mind-blowing. For the soundtrack to a boy grooming a heart into a lamb’s fur (one of the best visuals in the live version), it’s pretty epic, and does a good job capturing that sense of majesty that many of us come to prog for in the first place.
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)
Counting Out Time: The comic relief song, I guess. This was one I liked more the first time I heard it than on subsequent playthroughs. Rael, for no real reason, reminisces about that one time he tried to get his girlfriend off using a dodgy sex manual from a bookstore: needless to say, it did not go well. It’s a fun song on its surface, and you certainly won’t find many bands willing to use the phrase “erogenous zones, I love you” as their chorus. But the goofy electric banjo or whatever that is that comes in before the final verse (“Taake it away, Mr. Guitar!”) might be a little too much to take, especially considering the heaviness surrounding it on the album, and let me tell you, the dancing naked women diagrams accompanying this song during the Musical Box concert led to some of the most uncomfortable moments of the whole night. I give the guys points for trying to avoid any one single tone on the album, though, and this is also one of the few tracks that can stand alone reasonably well as that dreaded creature, the “pop single”.
Rating: *** (3 out of 5)
The Carpet Crawlers: “Carpet Crawlers” is probably the biggest single success to come from the whole of Lamb, lasting as a live Genesis staple well after Gabriel’s departure and serving as a sort of bridge between the pop and prog factions within the group. Good thing it’s also a pretty sweet jam, building up masterfully yet again and letting Gabriel change vocal costumes multiple times, from mystical to murky to ecstatic. It’s a rare example of a song where the verses are louder than the chorus and shows that not all of the band’s sonic adventures were trips up their own arses. They could deliver the goods, even when the plot was slipping hopelessly away from them as it. Only real downside of this song is that it represents Lamb’s apex: there won’t be too many more highly rated tracks from here on out, sad to say.
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)
Chamber of 32 Doors: This song has a lot of interesting bits but is ultimately rather exhausting. “Carpet Crawlers” ends so well that it seems like a shame to pivot directly into this monster, which features what feels like nine or ten dramatic pitches, blathering Blake-esque descriptions of fantasy people and a bizarre country section with the lines “I’d rather trust a man who works with his hands” (yes, really) that’s unintentionally pretty funny, mainly for the WTF factor. Because it’s literally a runaround, detailing Rael’s fruitless attempts to travel through the Chamber only to end up right where he started, the whole thing feels extra pointless, especially since there’s a quick appearance from Rael’s parents that doesn’t have any real impact on the plot. With all the Freudian angst going on, it seems a little strange that Mom and Dad don’t get involved, doesn’t it? Then again, knowing Peter, maybe the parents are here symbolically in the other songs, or some trippy BS like that. I’ll leave that for you to decide, dear reader, as we go further.
Rating: ** (2 out of 5)
Review to be continued!