Classic Genesis Album Review: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (Part 2)

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A slipper, man.

The second half of The Lamb Dies Down on Broadway shows Genesis (and really just Peter Gabriel) reaching a breaking point. Up to this point, the album has been scattershot but with enough high points that it generally feels well-constructed and engaging. Unfortunately, the scope of this project was too wide and it shows here, with more sequences of noodling, more random lyrics and arguably the absolute nadir of the entire Gabriel era (which we’ll come to presently).

But revisiting Lamb for this project has left me with the feeling that it is, at the very least, an effort. Unlike Yes and Pink Floyd, whose lesser albums were just as overly long and self serious, Genesis remains mercurial here, and there’s something interesting about that. You really do have no idea where the story is going to go, or what weird vocal effect Gabriel is going to use, or whether the entire track will suddenly switch to a completely different style. Songs that I remembered being tedious turned out to be quite layered once given a second look. I don’t know if I can really say if Lamb “rewards repeat listening” but it was a great, big epic swing that deserves some appreciation, even if it falls flat.

Anyway (nevermind, that’s track four), let’s finish this up.

Lilywhite Lilith: When we last left Rael, he was lost and confused (as were we) in a “Chamber of 32 Doors”, begging for help. In this song, he finally gets it, in the form of a mysterious old blind woman who takes him out of the darkness to a throne room. This is a pleasantly upbeat little rock tune that almost feels like it could stand on its own, still flecked with distinctive Genesis weirdness, like the way Peter’s voice spikes up on the chorus or the mix of grinding guitars and wispy keyboards. Then, rather abruptly, this melody disappears, replaced by a motif from “Fly on a Windshield”, which stops to a halt as “two golden globes float into the room/and a pale white light/fills the air.” Lilywhite Lilith is suddenly gone, and Rael is left to face another terrifying ordeal. The lack of an ending is really the only mark against this song, since it’s otherwise very listenable, and adds some more action to the proceedings after the stultifying “Chamber”.

Rating: **** (4 out of 5)

The Waiting Room: Hey, kids! Did you like Dark Side of the Moon? Want to hear something vaguely similar but not as good? I guess we can’t blame Genesis for trying to rip off one of the best-known and most popular prog bands of all time, even if it doesn’t really serve any purpose other than being tedious. Really, the first part of this track, which is all weird noises and undulations, is basically such a bargain basement version of “On The Run” that it almost feels like a spoof. The band just narrowly saves it from me giving it a one-star rating in the second half, when a melody finally arrives. Still, it’s disposable, more filler in an album that really didn’t need it.

Rating: ** (2 out of 5)

Anyway: Is there a name for the kind of speak-singing thing Gabriel does here? It’s in rhythm but it definitely isn’t rap or sprechstimme, just sort of a jaunty recitation with a little bite to it, held up by some pretty rad guitars, especially the soaring jam at the end. Narrative-wise, there’s nothing reallygoing on here, as Rael goes on a stream-of-conciousness rant about mortality, but there’s at least one good line (Anyway/they say she comes on a pale horse/but I swear I hear a train) and strong work from Hackett to help it stand out, as well as some ghostly piano bookend bits. Not bad. 

Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Here Comes The Supernatural Anesthetist: These last few songs are supposedly about Rael’s encounter with Death, I think, and if you can get that from the lyrics alone, you’re a better English major than I. Here’s another one where the second half, a pretty decent instrumental rock-waltz, is way better than the silly beginning, with stupid lyrics that were even worse with the seemingly nonsensical background slideshow that went along with it (apparently Death looks like a guy in a vest on a rocket-powered pogo stick). I guess it’s better than the previous track but not by much. We’re still kind of being jerked around here, though I guess Rael is too.

Rating: ** (2 out of 5)

The Lamia: So by this point you might be pretty weirded out by this whole album, what with the stuff about porcupines and sexual anxiety and child torture, but I’m not sure anything can really prepare you for how fucked up things get here. “The Lamia” is kind of like a mini-rock opera in itself, with Gabriel oddly switching tenses from first to third person and an entire story playing itself out over the whole song. Basically, Rael finds himself in a pool filled with snake women. Really. Or, to put it more accurately. “three vermilion snakes/of female face/the smallest motion/filled with grace.” They seduce him and bite his flesh, which essentially gives him an orgasm, but his blood kills them instantly (“each empty snakelike body floats/like silent sorrow in empty boats”). Then he eats their bodies (?) and peaces out as the room grows cold and the “water turns icy blue”. Got that? Good. Have fun in therapy.

If you can get past the intentional ickyness, the song is an effectively disturbing portrayal of sexual fears/moral panic, specifically the idea that sex will corrupt you and make you a monster (which, unfortunately, dominates the next few songs). At first I really didn’t care for this, especially given the misogynist history of the siren myth, but the strange, evocative lyrics, sing-song melody and dramatic flair actually do all work together the more you pay attention, and the amazing guitar solo from Hackett at the end kicks it up a whole star rating all on its own.

Rating: **** (four out of five)

Silent Sorrow In Empty Boats: Genesis goes ambient, because why not? I’m convinced that the group thought that one line from the previous song was so good they simply had to give it a standalone track. By now you should be well used to these “scene change” ditties which are only there to kill time, and this one is in the middle: not as bland as “The Waiting Room” but not as dramatic as “Hairless Heart” either. It smacks of Brian Eno’s interest in experimental “music for airports”, though in a good way, even if no one is going to put this at the top of their Prog Genesis list. I do like the biblical vocal effects that rise in the middle, making this feel like we’re at least building up to something. And are we ever…

Rating: ** (two out of five)

The Colony of Slippermen: Dear Lord. Here we are. Endure two minutes of weird pointless string music and you will find yourself in the absolute worst track of Lamb, Gabriel-era Genesis and possibly even the band’s entire catalog, as Gabriel introduces his most infamous character, the warty, debauched Slipperman. Apparently, everyone who encounters the Lamia (or “tastes love”) gets deformed and bulbous, including Rael, though he doesn’t realize this until he sees someone else who has gone through the same thing.

This is one time where I absolutely need to step away from my “just the music” approach because this needs to be seen to be believed. You need to go watch video footage of this, like, yesterday, and once you do you’ll immediately understand why this was Gabriel’s last album with the band. There’s dressing up and then there’s this monstrosity, a sort of leprous sports mascot outfit with face gonorrhea, not to mention phallic balloons and a giant fake head. In a way, it’s kind of come to represent prog excess across the board. It’s almost masterfully ugly, and it totally obscures Pete’s face, not to mention distracting from everything else onstage as he crawls out of a glowing red plastic tunnel. Then there’s the Slipperman’s voice, a raspy Cockney-ish lisp that’s as impressive as it is repulsive.

What about the song itself? Well, it’s just as ugly.  The music could have saved this outrageous stage display if it was good but things are just as confusingly busy as it jumps from one section to another. Rael meets his brother again and the two of them are ushered to a Nazi castrationist named Doktor Dyper, also voiced by Gabriel, to get their “windshield wipers” removed, which apparently de-slippermanizes them somehow. This all leads to one of the worst lines in recorded musical history: “He places the member into a tube/It’s a yellow plastic/ shoo-be-doob.”

*facepalm*

I can’t decide if Gabriel couldn’t think of anything to rhyme with “tube” and just made something up or was congratulating himself for being so whimsically naughty in a story about a boy’s sexual deformity. Or maybe a shoobedoob is a British thing and I just don’t get it because I’m an ignorant Yank. Or maybe it’s an obscure Biblical reference. It could really go any way with prog. No matter what, it’s pretty hard to take this too seriously.

And we aren’t even halfway done, because then a blackbird comes down and steals Rael’s severed penis, dropping it down a cliff into a river. John (who gets his only lines in the entire album here) refuses to help Rael go get it, so our hero has to chase it himself, but he’s too late and watches it float out to sea helplessly.

If I was in the studio when this was recorded, this is the part where I would have come in with a tray of tea and said “Uh, Pete…are you ok?” To say there’s too much going on here is an understatement. This is straight up embarrassing-messy, not fun-messy, and feels like the band has become a bad parody of itself, which is precisely the moment when it’s usually good to quit.

But I do want to mention one last thing. Even though I’m giving this song my lowest possible rating, there’s something admirable about the band’s attempts to go this far out in the first place. As I always say, I prefer a failed ambitious project to something that doesn’t try at all, and there’s always a place in my heart for the Slipperman. A small, fungal, infected place, but a place nonetheless.

Rating: * (1 out of 5)

Ravine: I’m not really sure what the best music to listen to after watching your genitals drift down a river is, but this probably isn’t it. Creepy theremin-style stuff has its place, certainly, and the general vibe is very eerie, but this is another two minutes of nothing that could have been shortened to an outro, or a segue into the next song (which I guess it kind of is anyway). It only gets the lowest rating because, after all the Slipperman shenanigans (Slippermanigans?) it really feels like adding insult to injury, delaying the ending just to test our patience even more. Get on with it!

Rating: * (1 out of 5)

The Light Dies Down On Broadway: This should have been the final song on the album. Why? Because after a series of random events in which Rael had had little to no agency, our hero finally, finally, finally gets a big moment where he has to actually make a choice, and the encounters from the previous track feel like they have actually led to something. It’s like piling up two giant stack of dishes and then placing a bridge between them at the top, and it almost brings everything together, believe it or not. Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford apparently wrote the lyrics to this one instead of Peter, which might explain why they put forth the most coherent plot of all the songs here, in a way that feels dramatically fulfilling, like we’re watching a musical.

Opening with some more eerie music that actually works, this song has Rael discover a portal back to New York, though he doesn’t entirely trust it (“Is this the way out/of this endless scene/ or just an entrance/ to another dream?”). He’s about to go through when he notices John has fallen into the river, and has to choose between saving himself or helping someone who has been totally useless to him for the whole album (“The gate is fading now, but open wide/But John is drowning, I must decide/Between the freedom I had in the rat race/Or to stay forever in this forsaken place”). It doesn’t take him long to decide, though, (“Hey JOHN!”) and the portal closes for good as he dashes after his brother.

With just a little bit of trimming and condensing, we almost certainly could have wrapped everything up here, and kudos to Banks and Rutherford for putting some narrative heft back into the story. The other cool thing about this song is  the way it brings together two previous melodies: the first half of each of the verses is from “The Lamia” while the other half is the “Lamb” theme from way back in the first track. It’s neat and theatrical, but it also underlines the duality theme, with one song representing the tough-guy vision of “home” Rael longs for and the other representing whatever this weird nightmare land full of horny snake people is. And there’s a real sense of grandeur here that would have made for a great finale.

Sadly, it was not to be. We’re not quite done yet.

Rating: **** (four out of five)

Riding The Scree: Merriam-Webster defines a “scree” as “an accumulation of loose stones or rocky debris lying on a slope or at the base of a hill or cliff,” in case you didn’t know. Which means that, yes, we get an entire song simply about Rael getting down to the water to save John, because things were apparently moving way too quickly. Lamb once again presents us a track that’s half-good and goes on for too long. This time, it’s the first part, with its keyboard regalia and odd time signature, that’s the better one, since the latter half is marred by misdirection and a woefully bad Frank Zappa impression from Pete (“Evel Knievel/ain’t got nothin’ on me”). Like much of the second half of Lamb, it’s not funny or particularly inspired, just random, confusing and alienating. It’s also not the last time the band would crib from an American vocalist with bizarre results, though that’s several albums from now. If this track was shorter and all instrumental it might  have been much better, in my opinion.

Rating: ** (two out of five)

In The Rapids: You might expect me to be fed up with the album at this point, but I have one last surprise for you: I actually like this one, even though it’s only connective tissue. Probably the slowest song about rushing rapids ever written, this is a beautiful, short ballad with some tender vocals in the lower register for Peter, an unusual and powerful sound for him (I love the “taken down, taken down/ to the undertow” part). There’s no goofy wordplay here, just a sober and earnest cresecendo, kind of like the “Narcissus” bit of “Supper’s Ready” but way more rockin’ as the guitar cuts in to push things up a gear. Because it’s essentially just a long verse, there’s no resolution, just a bigger and bigger swell as Rael catches up with John and holds him close, united with him at last. But wait! “Something’s changed!” Rael exclaims. “That’s not your face! It’s mine! IT’S MIIIIINEEE!”

WHIRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR-

Rating: *** (three out of five)

it.:  You might not agree with me that “The Light Dies Down on Broadway” should have been the last song, but don’t you think Genesis could have found something better than this. After all of the build-up and ordeals both we and Rael have been through, not to mention the band, you’re probably going to end the whole experience by simply saying “Wait. That’s it?”

Oh yes. That’s “it.” indeed.

With so many ways the band to have closed things out, why they chose this wet fart of a song that vaguely resembles the Charlie’s Angels theme and doesn’t call back to any of the previous motifs baffles me. We’re supposed to feel the joy of Rael finally accepting himself, I think, and all I can do is snicker at the Dr.  Seuss-like lyrics, while Peter uses the word “it” over and over again, enough times to kill the Knights Who Say Ni three times over and thoroughly use up all the goodwill he gained on the first disc of the album. At least there’s a triumphant scream (“It is RAEEEL!”) to signify some sort of high point for Rael’s character development, and a somewhat happy ending, if you consider vanishing into a cloud of purple mist to be happy.

Did the stage show make up for this letdown at all? Not really, although it did feature a  strobe-light effect and the TOTALLY RADICAL illusion of two Peter Gabriels onstage at once, which, for this tour, meant twice the brownface for the price of one. Fun!

There is something kind of majestic about this being the final Genesis song by Peter, though. To have his last words be a loud proclamation of his character’s name feels like going a blaze of glory (although his last words are actually “it’s only knock and knowall but I like it,” but you can probably ignore those).

Again, context sinks this one, as it feels like a whole lot of randomness when we should have had some sort of resolution. Supposedly the song was recorded in a bit of a hurry as the band were understandably eager to finally be done with the album and it shows. If the intention was to be different yet again instead of respecting the story, well then, good job lads. Here’s your prize.

Rating: ** (two out of five)

Final Verdict: In my previous post, I called “The Chamber of 32 Doors” an “exhausting” listen, among other things, and that’s a word I think could apply to the album as a whole. Lamb will exhaust you, and often try your patience,  with enough seemingly throwaway bits to make the whole enterprise look pointless at times. But I’d argue that you shouldn’t judge Genesis always by how good it is so much as how unique its efforts are, and Lamb does, for both better and worse, remain its own beast until the last fadeout, so to speak. Urban alienation, Freudian paranoia, ironic mythology, childish wordplay and an overriding concern with whether innocence can be maintained into adulthood. It’s certainly all here if you want to find it. A New Yorker article even called this “The Ulysses of Concept Albums,” which might be pushing it a little but gives you a sense of the impact this thing has had.

At the end of this long, long journey, I do feel exhausted. I can understand why everyone in the group was sick of Gabriel, who was already pursuing other projects and yet still dominating the writing and performing. I also feel a little enlightened, maybe.

Lamb is not for everyone (not even, it seems, for most of the members of Genesis, who don’t seem to really care for it that much) but it was an album Genesis had to make, in some shape or form. It’s not as track-for-track brilliant as Foxtrot but has some deeper richness to it, if you’re willing to put up with its faults. After this, Peter Gabriel would vanish into his own puff of smoke, at least as far as Genesis was concerned, and it’s nice that he got the chance to do his own weird-ass attempt at a musical before crawling off to become a a megastar.

If I were only going to focus on the “true prog” era of Genesis, I might stop my reviews here. But there was much, much more to come, and the next album, in its way, would be almost as big of a change as this one.

Hope you enjoyed this retrospective, and see you next time, on edge of the volcano…

Overall album rating: **** (four out of five)

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