The idea of a through-line in an album of rock music was nothing new when British prog-rock band Genesis started in on Duke in 1979. Tommy, The Who’s seismic rock opera, and Quadrophenia, its thoughtful follow-up, were already classics by then. But good as those two works were, they were out front and obvious, with characters who could have been listed in a program. They hung on bright-line structure and framework.
With Duke, Genesis took another step. You’re aware of a protagonist, you think you see him on the album cover, feeling pinheaded but massive as he gazes out a window at the moon and dreams…longs…wonders. And there are other characters — a wife (girlfriend?), children, fans, promoters — but all these personages move as shadows and flashes among the lyrics and arresting music. They are not drawn sharp. Instead; they float by, driven by winds that slide back and forth along the scale between breeze and hurricane-force gale.
Duke is an album, therefore, that you have to meet halfway. Sometimes a little more. But see it as an invitation. There are few more rewarding experiences in artistic rock ‘n’ roll.
The characters move with these winds in the usual uncertain, lurching ways of humans — overestimating, ignoring, biting, aching, hurting — and the music fits into every push point in just the right way. This was the tenth Genesis album, after all, and Phil Collins (drums/vocals), Mike Rutherford (guitars) and Tony Banks (keyboards and an immense catalog of sounds) brought a great deal of training and experience to the job.
Plus, the characters pack surprises — the life-changing kind. When I first heard Duke in 1980, including the Inner Voice that reveals itself (and its imminent departure from the hapless narrator’s soul) early in the work, I was wide-eye amazed. Holy crap, I thought…someone else has one too? When does his talk to him?
Musically, Genesis was afraid of nothing, as so many innovative riffs showed: “Behind the Lines,” an experiment in rocky funk, pumps pulse rates and engages listeners for the more serious matters of “Duchess,” where the problems begin. “Heathaze” may be one of the most beautiful songs Genesis ever recorded. “Please Don’t Ask” achieves that remarkable artistic miracle of making you feel an emotional tragedy deeply even if you’ve never been in the situation the song describes.
An eager circle closes when the themes you heard early in the album reappear near the end, much as they did on the band’s excellent Wind & Wuthering (1976). You know you’re absorbing a musical and emotional whole — made so because the band invited you to participate, and you accepted.
Click here for an interview with Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks about Duke.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr