REVIEW: Styx - The Grand Illusion is actually fairly tasty cheese

Posted by Al Barger on July 22, 2005 06:31 AM

Ayn forgive me, but I've been listening to Styx. I've been listening repeatedly to The Grand Illusion, and digging it. There, I said it.

Recently I was in Grumpy Old Man mode, complaining about the offenses against Geometry and Theology collected on the Now 18 hits collection. Back in my high school days, even the crappy radio fodder was better made, stuff like Styx. Between that line of thought and South Park, I found myself jonesin' for some Styx.

Funny, but I never really listened to Styx before. This album was huge in 1977- my freshman year in high school, but I was in the early throes of cultish Beatle worship. I can remember vaguely this stuff playing around me, and I could still sing back some of the hits, but it went in one ear and out the other. I wasn't paying attention. I've never owned a Styx album, though I've certainly owned far worse.

By their big, bombastic arena rock style, this band would be a likely target for the punk rockers attacks on "corporate rock" that were emerging about this same time. Styx responded to all that noise, though, with an answer. Most critically, they answered with a good, memorable song to make their case.

I was not yet at all aware of punk rock, and thus missed the real point of the words, but I could still sing them back to you because of the memorable, sweeping melody. That makes perfectly good sense, even if you've never heard of Sid Vicious.

Why must you be such an angry young man
When your future looks quite bright to me
And how can there be such a sinister plan
That could hide such a lamb
Such a caring young man

Hey, that's a pretty good understated rebuke. Well played. This may perhaps lack the pure rock and roll pentecostal emotional fire of the best few Sex Pistols songs, but it's a more distinctive and memorable composition than the very bare bones off the rack Chuck Berry/blues songs of the Pistols. Oh, and these guys can actually play their frickin' instruments.

"Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)" frankly shows a lot more wisdom than the cheap nihilism of, say, the Sex Pistols. More significantly, it's a much better written song than almost anything coming from anywhere in the punk movement, unless you move forward a few months and count Elvis Costello.

The title song "The Grand Illusion" opens the album, and best represents the pomp and circumstance. They particularly get the sweep of the cutting edge synthesizer keyboards whipping up an Epic Statement. Listening to it now the state of the art keyboards sound rather dated, but hey this works. It's got a real honest to God melody, some good drama, lots of hooks, and outstanding dynamics. Whaddya want, a rubber biscuit?

So if you think your life is complete confusion
Because you never win the game
Just remember that it's a Grand illusion
And deep inside we're all the same.

OK, granted there's a fairly high cheese factor here. The profound insights of the lyrics of the title song are a bit shallow. Then again, how profound were the Ramones lyrics? I'm inclined to cut them some slack, and credit them with trying to say something. And they actually did say something fairly memorable there. It just wasn't so much in the words.

"Superstars" is somewhat less musically distinctive, but still reasonably catchy and well executed. The lyric really catches my attention more here. Check some of this:

You've read about me in the papers
You've seen me on the movie screen
You know everything about me
I'm your late night fantasy

But don't think I can't hear you calling
From the shadow of the 14th row
Cause I've had the same dreams you've had
A few short years ago and that's why I know

You and I
We will climb so high
Whoa whoa you and I

And we'll just close our eyes
And we'll become our fantasy

Oy, vey. And by "we will climb so high" we mean that you get to give us money for albums and concert tickets and adore from a distance as we live out "our" fantasy. Man, but that's cheesy.

Yet it's an admirably direct statement of the stunningly obviously self-serving understanding that ambitious man of the people rockers offer. Really, this is just exactly the schtick Bruce Springsteen has been selling, only he's more cagey than to ever state the deal so directly. Wouldn't want people getting the false impression that a humble man of the people is a self-serving schmuck. You have to give Styx some credit here for guilelessness.

But all of this is just the lead up to the real centerpiece of the album, a song I've seen described repeatedly with phrases such as "the ultimate guilty pleasure," "Come Sail Away." I don't remember this song near as much as some of the others from back in the day, but it's really kicking my ass right now. I feel not the least bit sheepish in saying that this is an outstanding song.

Famously, "Come Sail Away" is Cartman's favorite song. For starters, consider that such import would be placed on this tune that came out when his creator was only seven. That's indicative of some sticking power right there.

But mostly, this makes sense as Cartman's song. It's really a very pretty sad song of broken childhood dreams.

I think of childhood friends and the dreams we had
We live happily forever so the story goes
But somehow we missed out on that pot of gold
But we'll try best that we can to carry on

It's really even more poignant for Cartman though, never really having had the close childhood friends imagined in the song. Yeah, it's his fault and all, but still I can well sympathize with his desire to sail away, far away from his crack whore mom and all the messed up people of South Park.

This song really rates as the most emotionally direct and effective track on the record. It opens as an exceptionally pretty piano ballad, and builds up a beautiful head of steam as Dennis De Young sails away. Plus, I give him some extra credit for the freaky stuff about the angels and the starship. What's up with that?

The second half of the album runs downhill fairly quickly in terms of musical interest, and the lyrics get more hamhanded. But those main four radio hits work pretty effectively. They're really memorable. They work.

For some reason, Styx has for many years been considered a particularly prime band for cool people to mock. Why that is though, I can't quite see. Comparing them to modern acts that would be taking up some of their artsy old AOR turf, I'll take The Grand Illusion over Coldplay any old day- or Radiohead even. This is better music.

To put one more little spin on this consideration, will any of today's seven year old children be remembering Coldplay or Radiohead twenty years from now as a reference point to put into their cartoons and screenplays?


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