Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Favorite Albums: Styx - The Grand Illusion

It's been a while sense I've done one of these, and my Favorite Albums list is getting nothing but longer - 57 albums at the time of this writing - and I need a new article to fill a gap in the week so why not right?

Having recently taken a stroll down memory lane (The Times, They Are A Changing) I have been hit with the memories of some of the classic albums that have changed my life. I could list the majority out for you, going a bit into each one, but I'd prefer to stick with the reason you're all here right now, to hear the word of the amazing album The Grand Illusion by the equally amazing Styx, and why I think it as such. For it is this album that is more steadfast in my memory then any others. It was their grand opus, their gift to the world and its people.

The Grand Illusion is a loose concept album, not so much in story, but in overall message. Its a tale of accepting who you are, enjoying life, love, and not getting caught up in the small things in life. All of the songs are uplifting and powerful, ranging in themes from sci-fi/aliens, fantasy, and day-to-day life. The album also plays paramount in Styx's rise to fame and popularity. From their formation, the group had always played around with progressive rock themes and ideas. Their first albums are heavily entrenched within prog, but as the 70s grew, so did the groups gap from the genre. Their songs began to take on a more pop-oriented/radio-friendly feel, becoming shorter and simpler as the years went on.
While I would say that this would normally have been a bad thing, for I dislike when bands go soft or simple just to sell some more records, in Styx's case, I'll let it slide. They did their best work as a popular rock band. I've listened to their entire discography, so I've heard the prog days, and while it is decent, it's not the best when it comes to the 70s progressive scene. It is because of their average talents at the full-progressive level that I deem them more then able to move into radio-friendly sounds. That being said, although their progressive themes had taken a nose dive by the end of the 70s, it still was present at least somewhat, The Grand Illusion is proof.

The album begins with the title track, which sets the mood for the entire album. It's a grandiose piece, sounding like a carnival coming to life. The themes and melodies first laid down here would make a continual resurgence throughout the rest of the record - which directs me to see this as a semi-prog album. To quote a repeating line of the song: "So if you think your life is complete confusion, 'cause your neighbor's got it made. Just remember that it's a grand illusion, and deep inside we're all the same!" This line if the backbone of the song, acting as the framework for the album. This line pops up again during the last song, "The Grand Finale," seemingly book-ending the release.

"Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)," the album's seconds track and single, continues with the theme of being happy with your personal life. It's about a man, who has been given every shot to succeed, but he keeps getting into his own way. He could own the world, but he's too wrapped up in his own thoughts to do anything of the sort.

"Superstar" follows suit with "Fooling Yourself," but this time growing in scope. It's a story about love and ideology, and - I believe - a little bit of teenage delusion. It's about a famous man, a superstar, and one of his fans. Within the song, the Superstar is on stage, seemingly singing to the fan in question, calling out to him/her. The fan knows everything about the Superstar, staying up late fantasizing about their life together. Eventually the Superstar and the fan join forces, both becoming superstars, and falling in love.

This brings us to the driving force behind the album, the reason it became a mega-seller and an instant hit: "Come Sail Away." Even if you're not a Styx fan, or can't claim to know any of their music, odds are you can at least hum the melody of this one. This was their first single from the album, and their number one single of all time, catapulting The Grand Illusion up the sales charts. It's another song about love, but this time with adventure strewn in. The song is filled with metaphors, playing around a nautical theme. The pair will "search for tomorrow, on every shore" becoming a story of legend for others. The pair end up getting picked up by angels, who turn out to be aliens, who take them away.
I know it sounds kind of stupid, but you have to dive deeper, read between the lines. As I said, the story begins with a pair sailing, looking for love and adventure, pretty straight forward so far right? After the third verse, the style begins to shift somewhat, subtly moving from the present tense into the past. The singer starts acting like the story is a fable, of a pair of explorers who get lost and/or perish without a word. This is reaffirmed when the singer claims to see angels, who call to him, for him to "Come sail away" with them. So far the song has turned from one of excitement and love, to one of woe. This idea is questioned with the next (and last) verse, wherein the singer, who he originally thought were angels, were actually aliens, coming to take his love to the heavens and beyond, so they can keep on exploring. It's an odd shift of lyrical style, but when you think about it, it makes sort of sense. That's the way I see it anyway.

One of the more straight forward songs on the album, "Miss America" is a tale of how heavy the head is that wears the crown. It begins with a women, a recent Miss America pageant winner, being the "apple of the public's eye." Within the first verse, it is shown that she loves the attention and praise she receives, going to functions and parties. But, by the second verse, the woman is starting to get tired of this life, this "roller coaster ride (she's) on." And within the third verse, she's realized that fame isn't all it's cracked up to be, being in a "cage at the human zoo." It's actually a neat song, really powerful and rockin' one of my favorites off the album.

After the quick and jumping "Miss America," one might expect the album to continue suit, for the following track(s) to be cut from the same cloth. This could not be further from the actuality; "Man in the Wilderness" is a slow and soulful song about personal reflection. It's about a man who looks back upon his life and realizes that he's never really accomplished anything - nothing that matters anyway. No matter how hard he tries, he is still lost in the wilderness, unable to find a home or help, because no one understands him. Another message I think we can all understand and respect.

Keeping with the slower theme, although a bit more uplifting, "Castle Walls" is another song that uses metaphor to spell out a point. While most of the tracks off of the album are about not overextending yourself or keeping realistic life goals and plans, this song is about the opposite. It's about not keeping yourself too guarded, to venture out beyond your 'castle's walls,' and look for adventure from time to time. I really like the last verse/couple of lines, where the vocals begin with a lot power, much more then what was heard for the rest of the song ( "Far beyond these castle walls, where I thought I heard Tiresias say"), instantly switching to a light and graceful style ('Life is never what is seems, and every man must meet his destiny") to end the song. Having the clash of energy and style makes this particular passage stick in my head.

"The Grand Finale" sums up the entire album, using pieces of the melodies from several of the songs heard before it. It mostly uses themes from the first few songs; "The Grand Illusion," "Fooling Yourself" and "Superstar," but there are a few randomly strewn ideas from other areas of the disc. It's not a full song, being the shortest of the album (as well as using recycled music), but it's a nice wrap up of the entire disc.

Well there you have it, the entire album in a nut shell. I feel it's prudent to mention the reason why this song has such a strong hold on my psyche as it does. You see, when I was a child - 8 or 9 - my father and I would go on the occasional road trip/trip to the store (they are all road trips when you're that young). During these outings, he'd often have this album playing, to which we would belt out all of the lyrics, drums and guitar solos to "Come Sail Away." I mean the whole song. And once it was over, we'd do it again, mostly because I loved it. I'm sure I drove my dad crazy, with my incessant begging to hear the song over and over again, but it'll always play a high roll in my life, and one day I hope to do the same for my child.

Anyway, The Grand Illusion is an amazing album, obviously one of my favorite albums of all time (hell I just wrote about 3 pages about it), and easily the best Styx album they ever released. I was fortunate to have seen them live a few years ago (closer to eight at this point), and I saw the Styx cover band Light Up, which is just as good as the real deal ...except that you know you aren't seeing the real deal. But when I actually saw the band live there was only one original member, so it was almost a cover band itself... I don't know how that works. Regardless, I like Styx, would gladly see them live again, and I would be more then happy to hear The Grand Illusion played on repeat in my little slice of heaven forever and ever.


Anonymous said...

I can understand you "love" for this Styx album. I would listen to it for inspiration when I was in high school. I still listen to it for inspiration. "The Grand Illusion" has truly stood the test of time.

The Klepto said...

Some of their other work is grand, but for me it's the Grand Illusion all the way