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Rush's Fear Trilogy: A Lyrical Analysis
What is fear?
Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart faced that very question in the early 1980's, when a chance conversation led him to re-examine some of his basic views and motivations. Impelled by that discussion, he was inspired to tackle this conundrum lyrically in a trio of interlocking songs that appeared over the course of the band's next three albums, known to Rush fans as The Fear Trilogy.
In a 1994 interview, Peart explained the genesis of this suite:
The idea for the trilogy was suggested by an older man telling (me) that he didn't think life was ruled by love, or reason, or money, or the pursuit of happiness -- but by fear. [His] position was that most people's actions are motivated by fear of being hungry, fear of being hurt, fear of being alone, fear of being robbed, etc., and that people don't make choices based on hope that something good will happen, but in fear that something bad will happen.
I reacted to this the way all of us tend to react to generalities: 'Well, I'm not like that!' But then I started thinking about it more, watching the way people around me behaved, and I soon realised that there was something to this viewpoint. So I sketched out the three "theaters of fear," as I saw them: how fear works inside us (The Enemy Within), how fear is used against us (The Weapon), and how fear feeds the mob mentality (Witch Hunt).
As it happened, the last theme was easiest to deal with, so it was written first, and consequently appeared first on record, and the other two followed in reverse order for the same reason."
Since these three songs are now considered a single suite, let us examine them in their proper thematic order, rather than the reverse order in which they were recorded and released.
The Enemy Within kicks off the trilogy with some of the most obvious clichés of fear, invoking things that "crawl in the darkness ... like spiders on your skin," causing a "pounding in your temples and a surge of adrenaline." This movement of the trilogy deals with the kind of imaginary fears we experience after watching a scary movie late at night, when "shadows across the window" cause us to truly wonder "was it only trees in the wind?" It's the kind of fear one falls prey to walking down a dark street, when a "suspicious looking stranger flashes you a dangerous grin" that makes "every breath a static charge" and leaves you with "a tongue that tastes like tin." But if the verses revel in a plethora of internal paranoia, the chorus offers a defensive tirade against such mental shadows:
I'm not giving in to security under pressure
I'm not missing out on the promise of adventure
I'm not giving up on impossible dreams
Experience to extremes
Experience to extremes...
The message is simple: It might be very easy to allow fears of the bad things that could happen to paralyze you into total inactivity, into never taking any chances and thus living a mere shadow of the life you could have had. Or, as the coda verse puts it most succinctly:
Is it living, or just existence?
Yeah, you! It takes a little more persistence
To get up and go the distance.
With its opening line, the second movement seems to pick up where the first left off, addressing the idea of unsubstantiated fears by paraphrasing that most famous of quotes from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "We've got nothing to fear but fear itself." Quickly, however, the tone of The Weapon turns from optimistic to cautionary, exploring the territory of tyrants and demagogues with such verses as:
With an iron first in a velvet glove
We are sheltered under the gun
In the glory game on the power train
Thy kingdom's will be done
And the things that we fear are a weapon to be held against us...
It seems Peart can only be talking about dictators with the lines:
He's not afraid of your judgment
He knows of horrors worse than your Hell
He's a little bit afraid of dying
But he's a lot more afraid of your lying
And the things that he fears are a weapon to be held against him...
He broadens that theme to include anyone who would manipulate the fear of others for their own benefit, even as he underscores that they themselves are ruled by fears of their own:
Like a steely blade in a silken sheath
We don't see what they're made of
They shout about love, but when push comes to shove
They live for the things they're afraid of
And the knowledge that they fear is a weapon to be used against them...
Some of the basic ideas of The Weapon carry over into the third movement, Witch Hunt - only here, it's not so much about fear being manipulated for personal or political gain as it is about fear blindly feeding group hysteria, and what can happen when such phenomena are allowed to manifest themselves unchecked by any voice of reason. Whether one is talking about the literal witch hunts of Salem or Middle Age Europe, the figurative witch hunts of McCarthyism, or the more general and amorphous examples of runaway social paranoia, Peart skewers them all:
The mob moves like demons possessed
Quiet in conscience, calm in their right
Confident their ways are best
The righteous rise
With burning eyes
Of hatred and ill-will
On fears and lies
To beat and burn and kill.
And if the mob gains too much power, even society can be reshaped:
They say there are strangers who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness too dangerous
In our theaters and bookstore shelves
That those who know what's best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves.
The irony of "those who know what's best for us" posing the gravest of dangers to society is plain here. Peart's final indictment of intolerance shines a light on this dark side of human nature, wherever and however it rears its head:
Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
And fear walk hand in hand.
And thus would end the Fear Trilogy ... except for the fact that, twenty years after writing and recording the final piece of this suite, it occurred to Peart that he'd left out one additional, very important aspect of the "fear factor": the famous "flight or fight" response that seems to apply both to humans and to many animals as well. So, belatedly, Peart wrote Freeze to address this earlier oversight and omission, turning the suite into that rarest of rarities: a four-part trilogy. (For those who doubt the band's sense of humor, or that a four-part trilogy can in fact exist, it should be noted that Rush's 1991 album Roll the Bones included an instrumental titled "Where's My Thing?" which carried the subtitle, "Part IV, Gangster of Boats Trilogy." Parts I-III apparently do not exist, and were never meant to.) Freeze starts off painting a word picture that evokes some of the same imagery as The Enemy Within:
The city crouches, steaming
In the early morning light
The sun is still a rumor
And the night is still a threat
Slipping through the dark streets
And the echoes and the shadows
Something stirs behind me
And my palms begin to sweat.
How to react to such dangers, real or imagined? Peart outlines the choices:
Coiled for the spring
Or caught like a creature in the headlights
Into a desperate panic
Or a tempest of blind fury
Like a cornered beast
Or a conquering hero.
Peart travels down the avenue of indecision where such situations can often leave us stranded:
The menace threatens, closing
And I'm frozen in the shadows
I'm not prepared to run away
And I'm not prepared to fight...
I can't stand to reason
Or surrender to a reflex
I will trust my instincts
Or surrender to my fright.
The song's chorus sums up the fight-or-flight theme:
Sometimes we freeze... until the light comes
Sometimes we're wrong... and sometimes we're right
Sometimes we fight... against the darkness
Sometimes we fly... into the night.
... which by song's end is distilled down to its bare essence:
Sometimes I freeze
Sometimes I fight
Sometimes I fly
Into the night.
Undoubtedly, other artists in the popular music genre have offered their own ruminations on the subject of fear, but few have as capable a wordsmith as Neil Peart to offer his level of lyrical analysis. His Fear Trilogy - all four parts of it! - takes its place in the impressive body of work Rush has produced over the past three decades.