Analysis of ‘A Farewell to Kings’

A Farewell to Kings is the fifth studio album by Rush, released in 1977. The album demonstrates remarkable musical growth in the band, with their shifting away from their original, Led Zeppelin-inspired hard rock sound and into the realm of progressive rock.

To this musical end, the trio expanded from a basic guitar/bass/drums sound to one incorporating not only six- and twelve-string acoustic guitars, but also classical guitar (by Alex Lifeson). Furthermore, singer/bassist Geddy Lee adds a Minimoog, and both he and Lifeson play bass pedal synthesizers; this electronic sound would be further expanded to the use of more synthesizers by the 1980s, this being a dominant aspect of their music throughout that decade.

Drummer Neil Peart adds a wide array of percussion instruments on this album, including glockenspiel, tubular bells, Vibraslap (heard during Lifeson’s solo on “Closer to the Heart“), and Chinese temple blocks. These new musical colours, combined with Peart’s growth from his original Keith Moon-inspired aggressive drumming style to one of prog rock virtuosity, show the newer influence of the crackingly precise chops of Carl Palmer and Bill Bruford.

But just as newer musical ideas are being phased in, so are older ideas being phased out. As I said above, the hard rock sound, though still present to a large degree, is noticeably less here than on previous albums. And although Lee’s soaring head voice (with its grating vibrato) is as evident as ever here (in fact, on “Cygnus X-1,” he hits his highest note ever, a B-flat 5…or 6?), it won’t be long after this album (two albums later, specifically) that he will phase out the use of head voice and limit his highest notes generally to those within mixed voice, and focus on his lower, chest voice.

A Farewell to Kings is an album that Rush were most pleased with: Lee has never found fault with it, and Peart said that the title track “seems to encapsulate everything that we want Rush to represent.” It’s one of my personal favourites of the band’s, if not the favourite–it’s the first of theirs that I’d heard as a little kid, not long after it was released. Apart from all the musical colours I described above, A Farewell to Kings is genuine art rock, not only with long songs divided into sections, but also with a more prominent use of odd time signatures and superb musicianship that had since become synonymous with Rush.

Here is a link to all the song lyrics on the album.

The cover, by Hugh Syme, shows a demolition site in the background as juxtaposed with, in the foreground, a king slumped on a throne and made to look like a marionette. The picture expresses some of the themes of the title track, and by extension, those of the rest of the songs on the album, as I’ll explain below.

Decades ago, I spotted the obvious theme of morality, but a much more important theme is idealism, particularly the idealizing of the past as against the disillusionment felt in the modern world. Also, there’s the theme of the danger of recklessly seeking to attain those ideals, leading to one’s self-destruction.

The title track begins softly, with Lifeson playing a classical guitar melody with one bar in 3/4, then three bars in 4/4 before returning to the 3/4 beginning, and playing the whole cycle all over again. He plays it a third time, but with the first two of the three 4/4 bars, replacing the third with a transitional bar in 5/4, then one in 4/4, to introduce a middle passage with Lee’s Minimoog and Peart’s glockenspiel.

The first theme returns with all three instruments, and with the 5/4 theme played three times. Though this gentle introductory tune includes a synthesizer, the classical guitar’s lute-like sound makes one think of a time hundreds of years ago. The music’s tranquility makes one imagine, correctly or incorrectly, that that old time was a better, more peaceful one.

A sharp contrast is heard when the electric guitar, bass, and drums come crashing in, suggesting the turmoil of the modern world, a sad decline from that (perceived) idyllic opening. We hear two bars of 4/4, then a switch to several bars of 7/4 before returning to 4/4.

Now, the lyrics come in, Lee singing what amounts to be a conservative’s complaint of “Whatever happened to the good old days?” (If one didn’t know any better, one might think of Archie and Edith Bunker singing “Those Were the Days” at the piano.)

Added to this conservative lament is the use of medieval imagery in Peart’s lyric (i.e., references to “castles,” all things “kingly,” and “nobles”). Let me just get this straight: a farewell to kings, that is, to feudalism, is a bad thing? Morality can be upheld only through the absolute power of a monarch, the ‘divine right’ of kings?

Such would be a very strange position for three young, long-haired rockers (who only the previous year sang of the pleasures of dope in “A Passage to Bangkok“) to take. Either Peart was being ironic, or he was being metaphorical in his references to kings and castles as an ideal, or the lyric is in the voice of a reactionary whose political ideals are in sharp contrast with those of the band.

I’d say that a hint to what Peart was really writing about, perhaps by way of a Freudian slip, is in the line “Ancient nobles showering their bitterness on youth.” Does this line not encapsulate what the whole lyric presents to the listener–grumpy old men griping about all these bad kids, with their long hair, loud rock music, and sex and drugs, only it’s expressed with all this medieval imagery, just to reinforce how “ancient” the complainers are?

One thing to remember about Rush, and about Peart in the 1970s in particular, was the influence of right-wing libertarianism, and of “the genius of Ayn Rand” in their reworking of her novella, Anthem, in their side-long suite, “2112” (not to mention their song of the same name as her book, and in the name of Rush’s record label). Surely, these three haters of ‘Big Brother government’ weren’t holding up the monarchy as a fitting alternative. And if the idealizing of monarchy is meant as a metaphor, then for what?

I want to give Rush credit here, and say that this song, however much Peart insisted would “encapsulate everything that [they wanted] Rush to represent,” is meant as an ironic presentation of the views of authoritarian conservatives “showering their bitterness on youth.”

In other words, Rush represents ironic tongue-in-cheek.

Sandwiched in between these verses is a tight instrumental section in alternating 4/4 and 2/4, with Lifeson doing a solo with a delightfully angular tone on his Gibson ES-355 over Lee’s Rickenbacker bass octaves in A, and Peart’s tight drumming. Lifeson stops soloing for a moment and plays an A-chord with Lee’s A octaves and Peart’s drumming of the 4/4 and 2/4 rhythm; then we have just 4/4 and a chord progression of A major, G major, and D major, over which Lifeson resumes soloing before a reprise of the “Cities full of hatred…” verse.

A final verse, to the same music as that of the reprised verse, ends with the hope for a world that’s “closer to the heart,” an allusion to the famous song that acts as a solution to the problem presented in the title track. More on that later, of course.

Though lyrically, “Xanadu” is inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic poem “Kubla Khan,” Peart’s idea originally came from the classic film Citizen Kane, in which the titular character (based in part on William Randolph Hearst) owns a mansion called Xanadu. Just as the title track yearns for an ideal morality in the feudal past (metaphorically, if not literally), so does “Xanadu” involve a quest for the ideal of eternal life.

As with the title track, “Xanadu” begins with birdsong (indeed, Messiaen would have loved it!). We also hear a low E played on the bass pedal synthesizer, along with Lifeson soloing with a volume pedal, and Peart playing the Chinese temple blocks, swiping the chimes, and tapping an E on the tubular bells.

Next, Lifeson plays–no longer with the volume pedal–a seven-note cycle of E–E (octave higher)–A–B–E-flat–A-flat–A, which then brings in the bass and drums. After this passage in 7/8, we return to 4/4, still in E major, with a riff including a whirlwind of notes starting on D, in the E-Mixolydian mode. Then, we’re back to 7/8 (Rush’s favourite odd time), with Lifeson quickly strumming chords of E-major, D-major, B-major, A-major, and G-major, but with an open high E string (he does a lot of this–playing E-shape barre chords, but with the high E-string open, without the barre–at various points in the song). Peart joins in with cowbells of different pitches, and Lee with the bass pedals set at a treble range. The bass and drums soon join Lifeson in this 7/8 passage.

The instrumental opening goes on for about five minutes before Lee finally begins singing, making allusions to Coleridge’s poem. “Drink[ing] the milk of Paradise” is what the speaker hopes will confer immortality onto him, though the milk, combined with honeydew, also suggests the use of narcotics (recall, in this connection, “A Passage to Bangkok,” as well as Coleridge’s own drug use).

The speaker seeks the ideal of eternal life, and hopes to find in Kubla Khan’s “pleasure dome” the ideal abode, paradise. But just as hoping for moral ideals in a romanticized past in “A Farewell to Kings” is foolish, so is the speaker’s hope for happiness in immortality in Xanadu foolish.

A thousand years pass, and the speaker has no hope of dying. He yearns for the end of the world, hoping to be destroyed with it, and thus to be freed of the “prison of the lost Xanadu.” Just as Charles Foster Kane can find no happiness or fulfillment in his wealth and power, the speaker, in his “bitter triumph,” cannot find any in honeydew and the milk of paradise.

Wealth, power, immortality, ideals…these don’t provide happiness. That’s what A Farewell to Kings is all about.

Now, “A Farewell to Kings” may have presented the problem of immorality (just as “Xanadu” explored the problem of immortality), but “Closer to the Heart” presents an attempt at finding solutions. Obviously, “the heart” is meant to indicate that we need a world of love as the solution, though as I’ll later argue, the solution as given isn’t adequate.

From a formal, structural perspective, the song’s lyrics (written by Peart, but inspired by a verse by Peter Talbot, a friend of the band’s) are cleverly written, with parallel structure from verse to verse. Examples of such parallelism include the rhyming last words of the third line of each verse (“reality,” “creativity,” “mentality,” and “destiny”); in the first line of each verse are references to different careers one could have (“men who hold high places,” “the blacksmith and the artist,” “philosophers and ploughmen,” and “captain”); the blacksmith would “forge,” and the artist use his “creativity,” ploughmen “sow” the philosophers’ “new mentality,” and the captain goes “sailing into [the] destiny” of “the chart” that “I will draw.” The most obvious parallelism is the repeat of the song’s title in the last line of each verse.

Now, this all makes for fine rhetoric, which again uses archaic diction, as in the album’s title track, the question song to which “Closer to the Heart” is the proposed answer. Here’s the problem: nothing in the song actually details how we are supposed to move towards a more loving world.

Matters start to get a little disturbing when we consider how the band that’s preaching how we must move “closer to the heart” was only the previous year touting the ‘philosophy’ of an embittered Russian bourgeois expat in the US, she who wrote of The Virtue of Selfishness, which espoused “rational egoism,” or as I would call it, rationalized selfishness.

In all fairness to Rush, and to Peart in particular, when they recorded these 1970s albums, they were young and naïve about the world. Their expertise was in music, not politics. Given the intense anti-communist propaganda of the Cold War, the kind that raised a hack writer like Rand to fame (seriously, I read Anthem when I was young and, being similarly naïve at the time, was more sympathetic to the story’s anti-socialist message, and even then, I was not impressed with her prose), it’s easy to see how Peart could have been seduced by her ideas, as so many have been. And to be even fairer to Peart, in the last decade of his life, he confessed that he’d renounced Rand (who, incidentally, was no libertarian, but rather an advocate for capitalist government) and begun calling himself a “bleeding-heart libertarian“…translation: a liberal. Indeed, it was the individualism of her message, not the pro-capitalist one, that he’d always liked, anyway.

As for those conservative politicians whose Rand influence has stayed with them, look over the past forty years of neoliberalism and ask yourself honestly if their politics have steered the world any “closer to the heart.” Tax cuts for the rich have resulted in their wealth ballooning to the point that they can essentially buy politicians and both American political parties, ensuring that the owners of the big corporations determine the direction the world goes in, which means more for them and less for the rest of us (all of this has given a new, bitter irony to Peart’s complaints of “the seeds that we let grow”). As I’ve explained in other posts, the “free market” dialectically leads to “corporatism,” or the capitalist government that Rand wanted, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

So, with the song’s championing of a more loving world, with its clever rhetoric and a lack of a concrete plan for realizing its goal, “Closer to the Heart” is another example of the album’s theme of idealism. Note that utopian thinking exists on the left and on the right. Everyone has his or her own notion of the ‘perfect world’: there are, for example, the Nazi ideals of Lebensraum and judenrein, though decent people would never espouse such horrors. “Free market” fundamentalists’ notion of unbridled capitalism, through the voodoo of the invisible hand, leading to happiness and harmony is another utopian fantasy: how does unchecked selfishness help the world? It’s easy to see how it results in unaccountable corporate tyranny, though. And leftism isn’t necessarily all idealistic: contrary to popular belief, Marxism is not, as I explained here, utopian socialism, but scientific, grounded in revolutionary theory.

Now, “Closer to the Heart” may have failed to provide a method for achieving the more loving society, but Lee’s lyric for “Cinderella Man” gives us something of an idea. Just as “Xanadu” was inspired (in part) by a classic old black-and-white movie, so was this one: namely, by Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, one of Lee’s favourites.

Longfellow Deeds (played by Gary Cooper) is dubbed the “Cinderella Man” by a newspaper reporter, named Louise “Babe” Bennett (played by Jean Arthur), because of his sudden rags-to-riches inheritance of his late uncle’s $20,000,000 fortune. He’s from a town called Mandrake Falls, and he goes to New York to get the money.

Since Deeds eventually decides to give all of the money to poor, starving farmers (the 1936 film is set during the Great Depression), powerful men scheme to get their hands on his money by having him declared insane, and therefore too mentally incompetent to be trusted with the responsibility of managing and dispensing with so huge a sum of money. His eccentric behavior, which includes suddenly punching men for no apparent reason, walking in the rain, and feeding a horse an excess of donuts, seems to confirm that he’s insane. In fact, a psychiatrist deems him to be a manic depressive. In the end, though, they “just couldn’t beat him.”

So, Lee’s lyric tells the plot of the film in an extremely abbreviated form. The proposed ideal moral solution to the problem of poverty is, essentially, a kind of charity, acts of generosity done of one’s free, individual will, as opposed to the workers’ revolutionary seizing control of the means of production, resulting in a state-planned economy providing free healthcare, education, housing, and full employment.

It’s interesting to note, in light of Rand’s influence on Peart, that Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a film by Frank Capra, who also did It’s a Wonderful Life, another film about the value of Christian charity, and one despised by the likes of Rand, who have idiotically claimed it is a “communist” film. Capra, a kind of right-wing libertarian in his own right, didn’t even like FDR’s New Deal, which was meant to keep the Depression-era American working class from agitating for a socialist revolution. As I argued in my analysis of this latter film (link above), the notion that altruism of any kind can be airily called “communist” really only displays the mean-spiritedness of the “rational egoists.”

“Madrigal” is a simple love song, with a sweet melody that Lee plays on his Minimoog, and with Peart’s drums recorded in an echo room. Even this love song can be seen as a manifestation of the theme of ideals, for when one is in love, one idealizes the love object, ignoring his or her faults, and exaggerating his or her virtues, especially as a contrasting bulwark against this harsh world we live in, as expressed in Peart’s lyric. That the song is called madrigal is again, as with much of the diction of its lyric, an example of the use of archaic imagery (suggesting associations with courtly love poetry, which idealized the Lady as love object), reinforcing that sense of idealizing a distant past against our troubled modern world.

“Cygnus X-1 Book One: The Voyage” is, in contrast to the previous songs’ settings at different points in the past, a science fiction story about going “across the Milky Way” in a spaceship to reach a black hole “in the constellation of Cygnus.” It’s in four parts, the Prologue opening with an electronically-altered narration by Terry Brown, the producer of A Farewell to Kings and all the other Rush albums from their second, Fly by Night, up to Signals.

1 is very brief, with Lee singing of how entry “through the void” of the black hole leads one “to be destroyed,” or could it be a wormhole into either another part of the universe, or a door to a parallel one? Our protagonist dares to find out.

Lee begins playing broken-up segments of the bass line that, when Lifeson and Peart join in, will comprise a riff in 3/4, 7/8, 3/4, and 4/4. Soon after, a frantic riff comes in with chords of C-sharp minor, E minor, and G-sharp minor, which we’ll hear again at the climactic end of the song. A guitar line of G, A-flat, B, C, D, E-flat, F-sharp, and G leads into a riff in 11/8, 12/8, and 11/8, with chords in C minor, a passing chord of B minor to F-sharp major, E-flat minor, and a passing chord of D minor back to C minor. The Minimoog eventually comes in, largely doubling the chords.

2, narrated by the protagonist, describes the flight on his ship, the Rocinante, which is named after the horse ridden by Don Quixote, a foolish idealist who, having read so many chivalric romances, fancies himself such a hero, a knight-errant in search of adventure. He’s an awkward fool, engaging in a task far beyond his abilities. The protagonist in the spaceship is similarly foolish and idealistic, engaging in a dangerous quest (though, in “Book Two: Hemispheres,” he enters–through a wormhole, presumably–the world of the Apollonian and Dionysian battle of the mind and heart, achieving the ideal of balance between the two).

Beginning this section is an upbeat chord progression of C major, F major, D major, and G major, musically suggesting the rosy optimism of the protagonist. Things don’t stay positive for long, though.

A repeat of the G, A-flat, B, C, D, E-flat, F-sharp, and G leads to a solo by Lifeson with the wah-wah pedal. Next is a quieter section suggesting the traveling of the Rocinante deep into space, with Lifeson playing octaves of C, A-flat, and B. Backed by Peart’s drumming, Lee comes in with his bass soon after, with fragments of his bass line from that frantic, climactic progression heard in the Prologue and soon to be heard again–notes of C-sharp, E and G-sharp…hearing this is a foreshadowing of the protagonist’s doom. Fittingly, the bass line does a bitonal clash with the guitar line, reinforcing the sense of tension building up to the climax. But just before that climax, there’s a louder section in E, in 4/8, 3/8, and 4/8.

3 has the Rocinante spinning out of control as it reaches the black hole, with that frantic chord progression fully developed in the form of C-sharp minor, E minor, G-sharp major, and G major, then C-sharp minor, E minor, and C minor, all in 6/8. The protagonist screams out that his “every nerve is torn apart.” (The tragedy of his self-destruction in his spaceship is paralleled by the farce of Don Quixote charging, on his horse, the windmills.)

The song ends with soft but eerie chords of C minor, E-flat minor, and E minor added ninth, then E minor again, but without the ninth. This fades out, suggesting the fading out of the protagonist’s life.

The protagonist thus goes through the whole Hegelian dialectic of being, nothingness, and in Book Two, the sublation of being and non-being, that of becoming, the balance between the two (as well as that between the Apollonian mind and the Dionysian heart), the achievement of the Hegelian ideal.

But this ideal isn’t to be reached until the next album. Instead, as far as A Farewell to Kings is concerned, our quixotic hero just destroyed himself, as does the drinker of the milk of paradise in the other long song ending Side One of this album. The first hero destroys his mind in madness, and the second destroys his body; the first erases the possibility of his non-existence, the second erases his existence…both heroes doing so in the foolish pursuit of unattainable ideals.

2 thoughts on “Analysis of ‘A Farewell to Kings’

  1. Excellent analysis of one of my all-time favorite albums, Mawr! Well done.

    If there’s a recurring motif across the whole of Rush’s discography, from Fly by Night through Clockwork Angels, it is that of the Restless Young Man — the ambitious youth looking to take on the world and make a name for himself. (That is surely a theme George Bailey could’ve related to, methinks.) That archetype recurs over and over and over again, in “Red Barchetta” and “The Analog Kid” and “Middletown Dreams” and “Dreamline” and so many more Rush songs. It really defines how Peart saw the world, and marks the shifts and refinements in his worldview over the decades.

    To that point, I think one of the developmental stages we pass through in early adulthood is a kind of “selfish” phase, where we wanna do what we wanna do — a sentiment George Bailey himself, wracked with wanderlust but shackled by responsibility, expresses in It’s a Wonderful Life. And part of becoming a more sensitive artist and compassionate human being is recognizing we are, each of us, but part of a community, not the solitary protagonist of our very own heroic narrative. Individualism should become less appealing as we age — that is good, right, and emotionally healthy.

    The Randian themes of Rush’s 1970s works evolved into more socially conscious subject matter in the ’80s (“Territories,” “Turn the Page”), Peart’s lyrics becoming increasingly personal and compassionate in the ’90s, and some of his best material (Snakes & Arrows) grew out of the personal tragedy he suffered at the turn of the millennium. He revisited the same themes across his career, but he always had new things to say about them — a more mature perspective on them. I don’t agree with the philosophical ideologies he extoled in those early albums (like 2112), but, then, neither did he! He allowed himself to grow, musically and intellectually. To behold the discography of Rush is to trace the evolution of an artist who never stopped challenging his own points of view. That’s progressive rock, indeed!

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