whirlwind life of faith and betrayal
I’ve heard it said that King Crimson, the band, is “a way of doing things”. I agree, but I would also apply that description to Rush, who have just released Snakes & Arrows. Far Cry is the first single:
Rather than tell you what the overarching theme is – which is not that simple to define – I’ll use the song Armor and Sword to illustrate the way a few well-chosen lyrics open up a world of concepts that lend depth to an album.
The first line also gave the album its name:
The snakes and arrows a child is heir to
Are enough to leave a thousand cuts
According to lyricist Neil Peart, the term “snakes and arrows” was originally a pun on the kids’ game “snakes and ladders”, and part of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy:
To be, or not to be, — that is the question: —
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? — To die, to sleep, —
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, — ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.
This passage has Hamlet questioning his own will to live; is life worth the pain? As used in the song, the “thousand natural shocks” becomes an unnatural “death by a thousand cuts”: the slowest and most painful form of death possible, it has also become a metaphor for the slow degradation or destruction of something held dear against one’s will. By way of contrast, the soliloquy came early in Shakespeare’s tragedy, when Hamlet thought himself in control of his destiny, and “to be or not to be” was a question he could honestly answer.
In the game of Snakes & Ladders (US: Chutes & Ladders), the tumbling of a dice marks your progress up the board, from the bottom to the top, step by step. Your luck can land you on a ladder, sending you upwards quickly, or on a snake, on which you slide downwards. In the worst case, a snake can send you “back to square one”, literally. The lucky player makes it to the top first, winning the game against the rivals.
Our better natures seek elevation
A refuge for the coming night
No one gets to their heaven without a fight
In the Old Testament myth, a snake was the reason Adam & Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden, and (if you believe the Bible), our existence since that point has been a fight to re-enter that Heaven. It pays to be a “straight Arrow”, but the Snake is still with us, in the form of Sin, laying traps of Temptation to be resisted. In the Snakes & Ladders game, however, your progress is random, determined by the dice, so is there any meaning to be found in the fight to the top?
This is where luck adds an extra layer of meaning: in his album essay, The Game of Snakes & Arrows, Neil explains what happened next. When “Snakes & Arrows” was suggested as a possible album title, Neil went online to check if anyone else had used it, and found that there was once an Indian board game called “Snakes & Arrows”, the ancestor of “Snakes & Ladders” that was adapted by the British from the original.
Also known as Lila or Leela, meaning “play”, it’s a game based on a Hindu concept: the idea that life is a game, and the Universe is a playground for the gods; a puppet theatre in which spontaneous plays are improvised. All this is dharma, the will of the gods, with the random dice the sole deciding factor; I looked for any reference to karma, the idea that a person’s actions can influence their progress up the board, towards their particular heaven, but I found none.
So, if “no one gets to their heaven without a fight”, what are they fighting for? The lesson to be learned from Leela is that Life is a cosmic game, to be enjoyed for as long as it lasts.
The gods are just having fun; why should a human life be any different?
Snakes & Arrows, in its lyrics, casts a soft, sympathetic, yet unrelenting light on the difficulties people create for themselves, in their beliefs and the wars they get into over them. Yet, what we face is not a game; religious fanaticism in all its forms is subjecting our world to “death by a thousand cuts”, the “snakes” are the sins we burden our children with, and the “arrows” are the dangerous ideas we cultivate in them. As children grow into adults, the intellectual weapons can become real weapons, if we cultivate irrationality in them. Is this what we want?
It’s a far cry from the world we thought we’d inherit
It’s a far cry from the way we thought we’d share it
This is not a conventional review, but Snakes & Arrows is not a conventional album. The musicianship is excellent throughout, with Geddy Lee in particularly fine voice and his basswork is as complex as it needs to be, and no more. Neil Peart’s playing is less flashy, more rounded but still precise; Alex Lifeson stretches his playing in to new territories, with the instrumental Hope showing him to be a master of the acoustic 12-string too. There is no shortage of great musicianship in the world today – enough to make me pessimistic about my own work – so I look to bands like Rush for much more than that.
Neil once wrote “the spaces in between leave room for you and I to grow”, and I agree: hidden depths are revealed in works of art that require the audience to think for themselves; even popular works, such as Star Wars , Desparate Housewives, or the Harry Potter books, benefit from time to dig in and send out shoots in unexpected directions.
I defy any reviewer to fully digest a Rush album in a single listening; if they write their review too soon, it shows in its superficiality. There’s far more to be found in Snakes & Arrows, if you’re prepared to look below the surface gloss.