Classic Genesis Album Review: A Trick of the Tail

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Now that I’ve covered all the Gabriel-era Genesis albums, all you prog-heads out there may wonder why I even bother to continue. It’s true that the band would never quite reach the same kind of gonzo creative apex it did in those works, and the edginess in The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in particular is singular. However, the history of Genesis has all sorts of interesting winding paths and dips, and we’re now entering one of the weirdest: the two albums after Peter Gabriel but before guitar virtuoso Steve Hackett left. While it must have been a chrysalis period at the time, in hindsight these two albums feel surprisingly even.

That’s not to say that the 1976 production A Trick of the Tail avoids feeling like a watered-down Nursery Cryme, but it’s more solid than you might expect. Out of all the different ways forward the band considered (and they considered many, including becoming a strictly instrumental outfit with no lead singer) this was probably the best to go. It feels more natural than you might think, even though it’s a step backwards in some ways. Instead of an attempt at a sprawling concept album, the band decided on a twee Edwardian short story collection approach, lighter and snugglier than their previous works but with some moments of menace. The album cover sums this up perfectly, with a bunch of kooky monsters, crooks and eccentrics waiting in line for their turn in a tableaux that makes me think of those old-timey Hendrick’s Gin ads.

Crack open the spine and let’s turn the page on this musty anthology. One thing I’ll say, you better start doing it right.

Dance on a Volcano: Squeak squeak, squawk sqauwk, dunununun. I bet you didn’t expect the album to start that way, didja? Despite a distinctive beginning and iconic Close Encounters-esque riff, this is a bit of a yawn for me. The verses toy with the time signature in a way that’s cool but tricky to get used to. I give the gang points for maintaining a bit of challenge even while they were trying to be melodic. The echo and choir-like reverb are mysterious and majestic…at the cost of understanding anything Phil is singing aside from “better start doing it right!” As far as I know, this song is literally about dancing on a volcano (and possibly sex) but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s an allusion to a myth or legend from something. Certainly the line about blue and green crosses as well as the impish cross-holding figures on the album cover seem to imply some religious significance. If all they were trying to do was intrigue people, then Genesis did a good enough job with this song, cramming it with enough oddities to maintain your interest like a guitar solo that stops for a few little wiggly pauses. That sped-up “let the dance begin” bit probably should have come earlier.

Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Entangled: This song might be an anti-psychiatry statement, but I’m guessing it’s more of an exercise in Gothic horror, a subversive Poe-like spin on the “evil hypnotist” trope with a neat little snipe at modern healthcare at the end. Whoever this doctor is, they certainly don’t seem to have good intentions. The sinister lyrics are at odds with the pleasant, mellifluous harmonies and the refrain “If we can help you, we will” is a nice touch. Considering this came from Steve Hackett, it creates a deceptively gentle atmosphere. An underrated classic.

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

Squonk: Genesis veered back into “library nerd” mode for this one, a fable structured around a mythical animal from the early 20th century fantasy bestiary, “Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, With a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts” (hopefully inspiring a new film series soon). The Squonk, you see, is a creature so constantly depressed that it can dissolve itself into tears, making it impossible to catch, as the protagonist of this song discovers. The opening line “like father, like son” is a little misleading, as is the kind of bluesy tone of the beginning of the song, but the triumphant parts later make up for it. It’s an ok song overall, with some good moments, even though it feels like a tonal mismatch, and not in the intentional way of “Entangled”. Also, it’s a good thing they probably weren’t trying to be taken that seriously because I’m guessing that the phrase “Hey guys, let’s all go to my place and listen to ‘Squonk'” didn’t get said much, even in the 70’s.

Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Mad Man Moon: The kinder, gentler Genesis (Gentlersis? Ew) gets fully underway with this downbeat fairy tale suite that sort of subdivides into pieces. The first part is a kind of sappy ballad about an Icarus-like figure trying to search for water. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the dream imagery, and the middle piece where the protagonist meets “the Sand Man” is a big improvement. But then we return to the original melody to drag our feet to a depressing conclusion:  it was all a dream, and now we’re not even sure that oceans exist. Great. Steve Hackett and Mike Rutherford do have their moments in this song, but it could have used some real guitar magic to juice it up. It has the right idea lyrically but lacks the oomph to vault off completely into prog greatness. As part of the twee, cup-of-tea-and-a-wool-blanket version of the band, though, it makes sense.

Rating: ** (2 out of 5)

Robbery, Assault and Battery: When faced with chaos, it’s human nature to try and create some sort of structure to help cope. It makes sense that with Gabriel gone, the band would try to rely on a formula for their new album, one which reflected their previous (relatively modest) successes: a few long epic prog odysseys, a short earnest love song, a retelling of a myth or two, and, of course, a mini comic opera with the lead doing voicing characters. It falls to “Robbery” to be this album’s “funny song”. Apparently Banks and Rutherford have voice parts in this but they don’t particularly stand out.

The thing is, you have to be able to commit to all this if you’re going to do it, and Phil, bless him, doesn’t really seem that excited about it (his unintentionally hilarious delivery of the line “he was completely surrounded!” sounds like a dad telling his bored son a tedious bedtime story). It also doesn’t help that the track this bizarre disco pastiche resembles the most is the dreaded “Battle of Epping Forest,” which is weird considering how much the entire band seems to have detested that song.

As the title suggests, this is a wacky caper story, or at least it tries to be, since it’s actually pretty dark, and since the bridge involves someone getting shot I think at least two people die during the course of the song.  It ends with the criminal getting away, and perhaps some sort of comment on the justice system, although once again, it’s probably not best to take this too seriously.

I like the trappings around the fringes of this song more than the chorus. There’s a neat, trippy synth solo that segues into a classic, soaring neo-classical bit that’s reminiscent of “the Cinema Show”. If we followed that part to an instrumental conclusion, the song might be better, but it feels a little overly long and weighted down by too much baggage. Also, Cinema Show had mythic stuff in it, which justified the big grandiose parts. Here, it feels a little random. Pretty, though.

Rating: ** (2 out of 5)

Ripples: Kind of a follow-up to the excellent, beautiful “Time Table”, this song tackles similar themes of lost beauty and painful nostalgia, although way longer and more esoterically. Strange how the album that is supposed to be a step closer to pure pop Genesis is, in some ways, less accessible than its predecessors. In any case, the best way to figure out what the heck this song is about is by looking at the cover art, which shows an old Strega Nona-esque woman staring longingly into a mirror, where a young face stares out (they’re positioned under a crescent moon covered in clouds, but that might just be a reference to Mad Man Moon and not part of this song).

“Time Table” covered this material more poetically, and in shorter time, but Ripples isn’t bad, once it gets going, anyway. Like some of the other tracks on this album, the lyrics go for that unrhyming blank verse style that seems to muddy around until things get to a memorable chorus, and the chorus here is well-designed, and will almost certainly get stuck in your head. It almost feels like a power ballad sandwiched in a Loggins and Messina song, but the requisite prog noodling also flows well here. I know it’s not exactly a compliment to say that a song takes four minutes to get good, but in prog time that’s really more like only one minute. The dancing bit that comes before the final reprise is quite sweet. Start this one while you go make a sandwich or something and it should be good by the time you get back.

Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

A Trick of the Tail: Uh oh! Goofy video alert!

This is a silly, silly song. In one track, the band tries to mesh all of its various elements into a bedtime story song that’s alternately pounding, twinkly, harmonious, warm, and haunting, and uses lines like “the blinkered arcade” with a straight musical face. And it’s a complete mess. Or is it?

There’s a lot that’s easy to make fun of with this period of Genesis, and this song in particular. Just look at that video! I could write a whole 2000 words about Rutherford’s Jersey and turtleneck combo, but Phil Collins is something to behold, sporting a full bushy beard mustard yellow scarf, orange fishing hat and a motherfucking pipe like he’s Tom Bombadil’s hipster cousin.

It’s inane. It’s infantalizing. It’s cheesy as hell. And I can’t get enough of it. For me, this goes all the way through sap and comes out the other side to something approaching greatness. And kitsch or not, the undergirding tune and that wistful fadeout are absolutely lovely.

Look, this is essentially Genesis’ take on “Yellow Submarine”. That song was supposed to be a children’s song, remember, and this feels similarly, except there’s the inherent subversion that Genesis is doing throughout the album. An Aesop-ish story about a beast caught by hunters, it continues a theme from “Squonk” except this time the monster can talk and “tricks” (if you will) his way from his captors by telling them about a city made of gold, which could still possibly exist. There’s a few hints in the presentation and lyrics that the whole thing is indeed a fairy tale Phil’s spinning for us (if you only listen to the bridge, the line “let me take you there and show you a living story” could seem like a direct address to the listener”).

I’m not very proud to admit this, but I’ll still listen on this to occasion. Io me, this is the one song on this album that gets the balance of ingredients right, and the only one you really need to hear to understand what the band was going for in this phase. But to make it clear, this is a very relative five star rating.

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

Los Endos: You know what’s weird? There actually hasn’t been a Genesis album that’s ended on a pure instrumental track until this point. That may be part of what motivated the band to close out with this, a song whose title probably literally means nothing except they couldn’t think of a good title. After a slow opening, there’s a busy bit that almost sounds like Santana, and then the band tips its hand and reveals that, surprise, this is a suite, calling back to the opening track with the same high-pitched UFO noises. Then we’re kind of jumping back and forth between the kind of bustling symphonia stuff (nice drum work, Phil!) and the references, eventually leading to the “Dance on a Volcano” squeaks and that electro orchestral noise that I should really know the name of. There’s a sequence that feels kind of dark and foreboding, and then we’re knee-deep in Squonk, which is something I hope I never have to say again. And the song’s only lyrics kind of appear in a few echoes from Phil (it sure does sound like he’s singing “there’s an angel standing in the sun” from “Supper’s Ready,” and if so, God bless’im).

Rating: ** (2 out of 5)

Final Thoughts: See? It’s not that bad, right? A Trick of the Tail makes sense as a kind of breather after the harrowing insanity of Lamb, and also a chance to play with softer tones and instrumentation. It’s telling that when Gabriel-helmed Genesis took a stab at this kind of material, it produced songs about child abuse, suicide and carnivorous plants. There’s a tendency to think that Gabriel leaving the group was a huge loss but it also gave them a chance, I think, to modulate a little bit, and there’s nothing wrong with a little lightness. In fact, you might even argue that this balancing act made them more unique, since another album going further into Rael’s existential darkness would have been just what people expected of them.

I’m not going to pretend this album is in my rotation as much as the earlier ones, but there’s a time and a place for it. Just make sure a tiny Phil Collins doesn’t get stuck in your piano next time you listen to it and you’ll probably be fine.

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