If you ask many music fans what the best concept album ever is, they will all answer 2112. This is because they’re stupid. I’m not saying that this is a bad album; I’m saying that it’s not a concept album. It contains one really long concept song on the A-side, and a bunch of useless filler on the B-side. And that mental disconnect is the difference between an album that everyone remembers as really great and an album that is really great.
Okay, so this album is supposed to be a big deal, because Rush put out a lot of nerdy Tolkein-rock on their first three (well, second and third) albums, and this is the one that got people to go to the record store and put down their cash. It’s arguable whether or not this album or the following All the World’s a Stage pushed their work out there more, since the live album carried these songs a bit more. But either way, this is the biggest of the first “set” of Rush albums, and it’s one that everyone wants in their collection.
I don’t need to say much about the Orwellian 2112 song. It’s 20:33 of rock opera that has some quiet moments, some other decent songwriting, and ends in a huge finale of dueling guitar and bass and a booming robot voice proclaiming “ATTENTION ALL PLANETS OF THE SOLAR FEDERATION: WE HAVE ASSUMED CONTROL.” Even though their record company tried to steer them away from writing another giant suite of conceptual music (on the heels of Caress of Steel which was a huge commercial failure), the band decided to belt out this giant story of a totalitarian society in the future that bans music and art. Meanwhile, a dude discovers an old guitar, learns how to play it (in just over three minutes, which is part III of the song), and then presents it to his masters, who smash it. The guy go hides in a cave and offs himself. The song ends with a giant space battle and an ambiguous ending, where either the high priests of the new order destroy everything and assume control, or some new power overthrows the priests and assumes control. (We don’t know which, although I’m sure I will get a few emails from people saying what the real meaning is supposed to be.)
Chief lyricist Neil Peart was heavily influenced by the Ayn Rand book Anthem for this story, although he later claims he didn’t realize how much he ripped off her story until he looked back at it later. Either way, he thanks her in the liner notes. Oddly enough, the band does another song, “Anthem,” also based on Rand’s work. And years later, the movie Footloose was based on the main premise of “2112.” (Okay, it wasn’t.)
“2112” is a cool bit, but it’s also a curse, because you don’t want to be forced to play a huge cumbersome twenty-minute piece during every one of your live sets. And decades later, when they pulled this out of the chest and reintroduced a shorter version to live shows, Geddy Lee could no longer hit all of his older shrieking high notes, requiring a pitch shift downward that made it all sound weird. Still, good stuff and pretty much a decent ref back to 1976 for all of us.
The rest of the album doesn’t hold up well at all. “Something for Nothing” is a straight-up rocker that still finds its way into modern setlists. “A Passage to Bangkok,” a little ballad written about smoking hash, probably seemed like all the rage back in ’76, but the band tried to later wash its hands of it during the Reagan-era “just say no” years, even deleting it from a live album when it got re-released to CD. “Lessons” is marginal (and one of few songs where Lifeson wrote the lyrics instead of Peart), and “Tears” is straight-up weepy (with lyrics by Geddy.) “The Twilight Zone” takes the mark for the strangest little song they ever released. The little romp through a handful of Rod Serling-hosted horror episodes was filller written at the last minute while the band was in the studio, something they admit used to happen on each of their albums. Aside from the titular cut, if they released this CD with none of the other tracks except maybe “Something for Nothing” and maybe padded it with live stuff, I’m not sure anyone will notice.
This is an interesting album for historical reasons, but it’s not a regular in my playlist. “2112” has been redone at least twice on live albums, plus any boots you might have, and they are all much more listenable as far as the other tracks before and after. Buy this if you’re a completist (and get the gold disc if you’re a completist with a lot of cash) but focus on the later albums if you’re on a budget.