Atlantic Records, 1979
REVIEW BY: Bruce Rusk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/19/2005
During the latter part of the seventies, Genesis began to slowly edge away from their progressive, art-rock roots. The evolution into a "mainstream" rock band became complete some might say, with the release of Duke, a slick, polished album that would spawn two huge hits and launch an era of unrivaled success for the band. Genesis would eclipse even the mightiest Billboard rival during their tenure at the top of the charts for the next several years.
At this point, the old-school Genesis fans had either accepted this fact and stuck around to see what happened, or gave up and jumped ship. It's hard to blame them. They were not the same band they had been a few years earlier. They were playing a much different style of music. However, the fact they were incredibly talented musicians had not changed, and they proved they were still capable of gorgeous compositions. The expected accusations arose complaining they had sold out, they went commercial, yadda, yadda. Despite the nay-saying from many quarters, this is no mere pop album. As is expected from these guys, the compositions are tight and satisfying. Even if they had largely shuffled off their prog-rock cloaks, Duke is still a powerful album, and a cut above most of the mainstream albums of the day. Despite the neo-pop wrappings, they throw enough musical quirks to keep the artistic edge intact. Throw in some of the best guitar work of Mike Rutherford's career, and loads of keys from Tony Banks, and the end result is very satisfying.
Genesis was ripe for some well-deserved radio exposure. They got it in spades with the two big hits from Duke, "Turn It On Again" and "Misunderstanding." For a band like this, these were exceedingly simplistic songs. But, they were just what the people were looking for. The timing couldn't have been more right. Synth-pop was taking over the airwaves, and new-wave bands were making a huge impact. Genesis took that simplistic new-wave styling, fused it with their own brand of music, and maintained a lot of the sophisticated compositional skills that had made them art-rock legends.
Duke began as a concept album, but the concept was never fleshed out to fill the entire album. The story of Duke and Duchess mimics the Hollywood classic A Star Is Born, but it's hard to tell right off which songs are part of the story and which are not. I would have liked to see them encompass one side of the album, but instead, a sort of "mini-suite" bookends the album, and a couple of the other tracks feel like they started out as part of the concept.
One thing I like about this album on the whole, is the very palpable mood changes the album goes through from song to song. From the upbeat, poppy "Turn It On Again" and the manic energy of "Behind The Lines," to the somberness of "Heathaze" and "Cul-De-Sac." The musical and lyrical textures are all over the map, which is one factor that helps this album rise above simple pop music. In spite of (or maybe because of) the broad emotional landscape, the album is very tight and cohesive as a whole. This is important as they had a habit of turning out albums full of great songs that didn't always flow well from end to end.
You don't have to listen too hard to hear some of the old-school Genesis. "Heathaze" harkens back to the album Wind & Wuthering, and has a more mature feel than most of the other songs on this album. Tony Banks' piano gives the song a mournful tone, and Collins' vocal is right on the money. The closing tracks, which are also the finale of the Duke mini-suite, "Duke's Travels" and "Duke's End" create a dynamic coda to the album, reminiscent of some of their classics, and full of the sort of dynamic interplay that shows off their exceptional musical abilities. Tony Banks really shines on these tracks; his solos are reminiscent of his best work from the Gabriel years.
I guess I feel fortunate that I enjoyed them before, during, and after the transition. Although Duke would turn out to be, for me personally, the last great album by a great band.