In preparing for Close to the Edge, I thought it would be a good idea to go back and read my review of The Yes Album, posted almost seven years ago. This was an unusual step on my part because other than the massive set of revisions I completed when I was thinking about publishing my reviews in book form, my M.O. is once I write a review, I’m done with it and ready to move on. In the few instances when I have revisited past reviews, I always find stuff I don’t like and wind up wasting a couple of days beating myself up in response to my glaring incompetence.
Though I dreaded the thought of re-entering the time machine, I had a very specific and urgent need to read that review from yesteryear. I remembered the review was highly complimentary, but I couldn’t recall how I handled the lyrics, and I wanted to take a consistent approach with Close to the Edge.
You can’t imagine my relief when I discovered that I’d fucking nailed it:
As mentioned in the introductory post to this series, their lyrics could often be obscure to the point of extreme esotericism. Compared to more traditional lyrical forms, Yes lyrics are like a mobile of metaphysical phrases and symbols. According to one source, the lyrics were one of the reasons Bill Buford and Rick Wakeman later left the band, so if you feel uncomfortable with them, you have good company. For me, the sound of the music more than compensates for the lyrical deficit. I just hear the lyrics as “metaphysical scat” and avoid trying to make sense of them; they’re often quite euphonious and blend well with the music.
My firm belief that Yes lyrics must be approached with due caution is backed up by two band members, including the lyricist. According to Songfacts, “Jon Anderson has said that many times the lyrics he writes reveal their meanings to him later.” In a post-concert interview back in 1972, he said “And You and I” was “a tale of the search for truth and purity between two people.” When pressed to define who the “you” is in “And You and I,” in a later Songfacts interview, he responded, “Probably God. Or it could be we collectively.” Anderson’s approach to lyrics goes far beyond Tom Verlaine’s “You say five words and you mean the sixth,” leaving it up to listeners to interpret the lyrics any way they choose. That may seem like a copout (and in some ways it is), but as Rick Wakeman explained in reference to the same song, enlightenment-through-lyrics was not a priority: “The object was having a piece of music that was everything that the Yes critics hated us for and the Yes fans loved us for, which was emotion.”
The emotive power of music is undeniable, confirmed by science and human experience, and most clearly evident in what we call classical music. The great symphonic composers had little use for lyrics; even after Beethoven first introduced lyrics into a symphony by inserting a variation of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the fourth movement of Symphony No. 9 in D minor, few of his brethren followed his lead. I wouldn’t compare Yes music to the great symphonies or even describe it as symphonic, but there is a parallel in opera that you might find helpful when approaching their music. Long before opera companies introduced simultaneous translations of the libretto via surtitles, generations of opera fans whose command of Italian was limited to “spaghetti” and “pizza” still flocked to hear Verdi’s operas because of the emotional power of the music. Close to the Edge is much more satisfying if you shut off the surtitle screen, disconnect the language processor in your brain and allow the music-processing sections to take over.
Ergo, my goal in this review will be to explore the meaning in the music. Occasionally I’ll refer to the lyrical content based on clues provided by Jon Anderson over the years, but I think that Close to the Edge is best interpreted by studying the musical patterns and how those patterns combine to create meaning and evoke emotions. As we all hear music differently based on our life experiences, backgrounds and values, this will be an entirely subjective, non-authoritative analysis.
“Close to the Edge” (Anderson, Howe): The title track consists of four movements that take up all the space on side one. Certain themes are repeated in the four sections to strengthen the compositional unity of the piece, sometimes presented in different keys, tempos, harmonies and time signatures in addition to lyrical variations.
Jon Anderson claimed that Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha influenced both the lyrics and the music. Taking him at his word, I reluctantly re-read the book and found it as boring as I did the first time, but I did manage to identify some thematic similarities between yawns. Both works involve a spiritual journey focused on differentiating reality from illusion; a “search for truth,” so to speak. The symbolic aspect of the river is another common feature, though its meaning is easier to grasp in Hesse’s work: “The river in Siddhartha represents life itself, time, and the path to enlightenment. As a representation of life, it provides knowledge without words, and Siddhartha’s reward for studying it is an intuitive understanding of its divine essence.” Finally, the repetition of the phrase “I get up, I get down” is a pithy description of Siddhartha’s journey (or any other spiritual journey), marked by highs and lows, moments of enlightenment followed by moments of confusion and flipping from one extreme to another.
I. “The Solid Time of Change”
The first movement begins with a soothing and pleasant mixture of natural (flowing river, chirping birds) and complementary man-made sounds (wind chimes), gradually rising in intensity for fifty-five seconds. If someone were to create a soundtrack to accompany a reading of Siddharta, this is what it would sound like, as most of the scenes take place in natural environments, often near a river. I believe the purpose of this introduction is two-fold: one, to establish the link between the natural and the spiritual; and two, to set the stage for the contrast that follows.
Our peaceful habitat is shattered by polytonal and polyrhythmic chaos. Much of the chaos is built-in due to the use of the D Locrian mode and its inherently dissonant form. I’ll avoid the technicalities and cut to the essence: the D Locrian scale includes F and B notes, resulting in a tritone (a six-step interval) that sounds weird and creepy (which is why it’s called “the devil’s interval”). If you have access to a piano, play an eight-note scale starting with B using only the white keys and the eerieness will come through loud and clear. In Western music, Locrian is primarily used in short riffs and transitional passages (parts of Sleater-Kinney’s “Dig Me Out” is in Locrian; the opening guitar riff to the Supergrass’ hit “Richard III” uses the devil’s interval), but here it’s applied to a much longer segment. The length of the passage tells us that it’s not a transitional link but a key component of the composition.
The discordant environment is intensified by the contributions of the band members: Steve Howe’s rising and falling riffs are sometimes bent to the extent that he creates a boing-boing sound as if he’s playing an electric pogo-stick; Howe and Chris Squire play in different tempos for while; brief vocalizations appear out of nowhere. Bill Buford enters with some assertive rolls and our tendency to follow the drummer for clues leads us to assume that he’ll pull it all together, but after listening for a few more seconds, we’re not entirely sure if he accomplished that or even intended to do so. Sonically, the passage has more in common with free-form jazz than anything else, but eventually something close to a structure seems to emerge from the din, hinting at a change in mood and method. I imagine that some borderline Yes fans of the era who bought the album with dreams of “Roundabout Revisited” might have been completely turned off by the noise and considered flinging the disc out the window, but the passage makes perfect sense within the larger composition. We have moved from the natural sphere and into the chaos of modern life with its grinding unpleasantness and endless absurdities; the juxtaposition has defined the journey as a struggle between the spiritual path and the temptations of instant gratification inherent in the ever-busy material world.
Just short of the three-minute mark, a guitar crescendo followed by a melodic scat vocal from Anderson signals a transition to something less taxing on the ears, though some of Howe’s solo refers to the more dissonant riff. His closing notes fade into Wakeman’s light-touch organ, a mini-prelude to the first verse. The rhythm here is chugging, led by Squire’s pulsating bass, somewhere between funk and rock in the key of A minor with A5 variants; the melody is on the horizontal side. A picture of someone struggling against a headwind comes to mind, hinting that the journey ahead won’t be a stroll through the park. A sharp turn to a descending chord pattern beginning with E minor breaks the rhythm and introduces a truncated version of the chorus, which in turn leads to a new pattern in the key of F major. That passage leads to a fuller repetition of the chorus, beginning with a D minor chord consistent with the F major key change:
Down at the end, round by the corner
Close to the edge, just by a river
Seasons will pass you by
I get up, I get down
II. “Total Mass Retain” (6:04):
This movement begins with the same chugging rhythm pattern in the previous movement, though Squire changes his bass pattern to something more sluggish and awkward. The lyrical melody is identical; the repetition of “Down at the edge, close by a river/Close to the edge, round by the corner” is close to monotone, as if the spiritual traveler is reminding himself to stay focused on the goal. Another verse follows, ending with the line, “As we cross from side to side, we hear the total mass retain.” The first part confirms the perception that that the song describes a journey while reinforcing the symbolic importance of a river crossing, but I have no idea what the fuck a “total mass retain” might be. This brief movement ends with the more melodic version of the chorus, which ends on a down note that leads to a brief transitional segment featuring Howe, Squire and Wakeman.
III. “I Get Up, I Get Down” (8:27)
This movement opens with dreamy, ambient sound at comparatively low volume heralding a change in perspective from the outer world to the inner world. Steve Howe and Chris Squire engage in two-part harmony in the first verse; Jon Anderson responds with a gentle delivery of the central lyrical concept, “I get up, I get down” while Howe and Squire add harmonic wordless vocals over the ambient music. When Anderson sings the “official” verses, Howe and Squire sing parallel verses (repeating the first verse in one instance), anticipating the vocal arrangements of Sleater-Kinney (with a more subdued delivery, of course). This beautiful melange ends with Anderson gradually climbing the scale, finally giving way to the grand, celestial sound of a pipe organ, recorded by Wakefield at London’s St Giles-without-Cripplegate church. The sound of the pipe organ with all its overtones is quite compelling, and Wakeman wisely chooses to play the passage in a suitably stately manner, preserving the grandeur of the instrument. Anderson returns with another rising rendition of the chorus, leading to a louder and even more dramatic pipe organ passage; a synthesizer is added to the mix in the form of an urgent phrase that sounds like a call to action. Wakeman foreshadows the fourth movement by introducing more dissonant, descending riffs.
This is clearly the most beautiful of the four movements, exceedingly expressive and superbly arranged. I hear the quiet vocal passage as confirmation that the journey will be difficult while simultaneously expressing a wish that the process of self-realization wasn’t so damned difficult. “I get up, I get down” is the unfortunate reality; Siddhartha experienced many such ups and downs in his spiritual journey. The feeling I get from Wakeman’s efforts also reflects opposing forces: the organ reminds the traveler of the sheer immenseness of the journey while the synth serves as a shot in the arm, encouraging the traveler to move forward.
IV. “Seasons of Man” (14:12)
While I can understand the validity from a compositional perspective, I really didn’t want to hear that dissonance again, even if it’s softened a bit by major chords. The change from dissonance to the reprise of the chugging rhythm isn’t as well-executed as the other transitions, but we do get to enjoy a long organ solo courtesy of Wakeman’s nimble fingers before Anderson returns to close things out. Generally, I find this passage somewhat tedious, and though I realize they had to find some way to get back to the chorus, I wish they’d found a more engaging path. The song appropriately ends where we began, with the sounds of nature filling our ears.
“And You and I” (Anderson, Bruford, Squire, Howe)
The second piece represents another leg in the spiritual journey, also presented in four movements. As noted above, the “you” is ambiguous; I’ve tried to define “you” as a simple traveling companion like Siddhartha’s pal Govinda, but the lyrics indicate that this part of the journey does not take place in the corporeal realm but in dreams, in the mind or in the spiritual dimension (“And you and I climb over the sea to the valley”). There are lines that support the “search for truth and purity between two people” interpretation (particularly the repeated line “All complete in the sight of seeds of life with you”) and since Anderson made that claim closer to the point of origin, I lean strongly in that direction, which makes the non-corporeal lines romantic flights of fancy.
A Steve Howe acoustic performance on a Yes album is similar to a Greg Lake acoustic ballad on an ELP album: close to obligatory. “And You and I” may not be an acoustic solo à la “The Clap” or “Mood for a Day,” but Howe’s acoustic offerings define the piece, balancing the more dramatic sections with a nice pastoral touch.
I. “Cord of Life”
The song opens with an “Okay” from Steve Howe, who spends the first thirty seconds feeling things out on the upper reaches of a twelve-string. It could be a warmup captured on tape or the beginnings of the composition, but Steve Howe is so damned good on acoustic guitar that I could listen to him tuning up for an hour and not feel the slightest bit of disappointment. After the mini-intro, he settles into a more defined pattern featuring slow and bright arpeggios. What sounds like a brief bass riff from Squire or a softly-played kick drum is followed by the tinkle of a triangle, cueing Howe to introduce the first verse with its simple, ascending pattern of D-G-A, soon complemented by Wakeman playing a pleasant melody on the Minimoog.
The words may be opaque, but Anderson sings the enchanting melody of the first two verses beautifully, varying his phrasing and adding subtle variations to keep things fresh. Though the music is positively lovely, the band wisely inserts a bridge that involves a brisk chordal shift to the semi-incompatible combination of Bb-C-Am-Em and a rhythmic shift from 3/4 to syncopated 4/4 with layered vocals from Anderson, Howe and Squire (the latter two channeled through a good old Leslie speaker). The opening line of the bridge (“Coins and crosses never know their fruitless worth”) is one of the few for which Anderson provided a clear and understandable explanation in an interview conducted by Rock History Music.com: “Money and religion, they don’t know that they’re useless. We’re very spiritual beings, so we all have our own religions. And the confusion was that you can’t have a religion saying, ‘You’re all wrong, you’re all going to hell.’ You can’t have that – it doesn’t work.”
Remarkably, the segment resolves to A major, where Howe returns to the fore and Anderson delivers a double-tracked and delayed vocal in the closing lines: “And you and I climb over the sea to the valley/And you and I reached out for reasons to call.” He holds the closing harmonic for a few seconds, blending into the sound of Wakeman’s organ that begins the second movement.
Though it’s certainly not reflected in the lyrics, the emotion I feel when listening to the first movement is love.
II. “Eclipse” (Anderson, Howe) (3:46)
The rhythm is now “stately grandeur.” Wakeman adds a Minimoog to the mix but the most interesting sound comes from Howe playing a slide guitar on delay, creating a swooping, swooning effect that colors the passage with what feels like emotional highs and lows. A subtle crescendo sneakily disguises a time shift from 4/4 to 3/4 without losing an ounce of grandeur while solidifying a key change to E major. Anderson comes through with a passion-loaded vocal based on the chord pattern in the verse melody, this time in the higher register demanded by the key-change-initiated shift to E-A-B. He ends his performance in thrilling fashion, comfortably raising the final note in the line “All complete in the sight of seeds of life with you” to send chills up and down my spine. Wakeman then takes over with a grand return to the main theme, gently giving way to Howe, who repeats the opening arpeggios that now serve as the transition to the third movement.
Love remains my dominant emotion, now enhanced by the complementary emotion of passion mixed with happy tears.
III. “The Preacher, the Teacher” (6:16)
Howe opens the track with a jaunty 3/4 rendition of the main verse theme (E-A-B), but the harmonics clearly indicate he’s not playing straight chords, but compatible variations. At times C# minor substitutes for the complementary E major, displaying the flexibility of the central melody. Wakeman reprises his Minimoog melody, while Chris Squire plays a more assertive bass. The penultimate verse is marked by two tempo shifts and vocal harmonies, leading to a repetition of the 3/4 passage from “Eclipse” with organ and swoops that now resemble shooting stars.
IV: “Apocalypse” (9:25)
The brief closing passage presents the final verse sung to a slightly different melody while Howe doubles on acoustic and slide guitar. It’s a sweet ending that leaves me feeling warm and content, still basking in love.
“Siberian Khatru” (Anderson, Howe, Wakeman)
Our spiritual journey ended with the fading sounds of “And You and I” and now we’re on our way to Siberia.
What the fuck?
When I think of Siberia, I think of a frozen wasteland filled with gulags and laborers struggling to break up tundra in the unimaginably bitter cold. Siberia is where people are forced to go, a place that truly earned its tagline “prison without walls.” Has anybody ever asked the question, “Hey, honey, whaddya think about honeymooning in Siberia?” It seems rather cruel to follow a quest for greater understanding with a sentence of twenty years of hard labor and no chance of parole.
Jon Anderson provided a satisfactory explanation on yesworld.com for his questionable choice of post-enlightenment venues:
I was playing this on acoustic guitar the other day. ‘Khatru’ means ‘as you wish’ in Yemeni. When we were working on it, I kept singing the word over and over again, even though I had no idea what it meant. I asked somebody to look it up for me, and when they told me the meaning, it worked for the song . . .
[Sings] “’Even Siberia goes through the motions . . . ‘” The idea is that Siberia is so far away. The Iron Curtain still existed, and Siberia was like this no man’s land. Russia is such a huge country, and the thought was that life still happens there as it does here.
Well, yeah, I guess it does . . . sorta . . . in a very basic sense. We’re all humans trying to survive against various life challenges; we all eat, drink, shit and piss; and we all experience human emotion—love, hate, anger, joy, sadness, happiness, fear, contentment, surprise, disgust, and of course, horniness. “We are all the same” is a nice sentiment that conveniently ignores significant cultural and linguistic differences, but Jon Anderson is nothing if not an idealist. Even this skeptic accepts the truth that we need idealists to remind us that the human race has a long way to go in its quest for peace, love and understanding.
That said, you’d be hard-pressed to back up a claim that the song is about Siberia. The mysterious land mass is only mentioned in a single line, repeated once. As for the other half of the title, “khatru” appears makes only one brief appearance: “Green leaves reveal the heart-spoken Khatru.” If you paid attention to the introduction to this review, you’d immediately put Siberia and Khatru together, classify the lyrics as yet another example of “metaphysical scat” and focus your attention on the music.
Which ain’t a bad thing. For the most part, “Siberian Khatru” kicks ass! Jon Anderson described the music as a return to his pre-progressive roots:
The verses have a different rhythmic feel. We had lots of influences and elements going on. Before Yes, I was in a band in the ‘60s, and we did all the R&B songs that were on the charts. I loved singing those songs, but I didn’t want to write about the same things subject-wise. ‘My babe don’t love me no more, what am I gonna do?’ – why should I compete with people who were writing those songs so damn well?
That “different rhythmic feel” in the verses is 4/4 time with an emphasis on the backbeat, commonly referred to as “rock ‘n’ roll.” Though there are sufficient progressive touches (time signature changes, non-rock instrumentation, modal explorations) in the arrangement to keep hardcore Yes fans happy, it’s the Buford-Squire rhythm section and Steve Howe’s rock-heavy licks that made the song a perfect opening number for many Yes concerts of the era.
The song opens with a perfectly nasty guitar riff from Howe in stark contrast to the soothing sounds of “And You and I,” enhanced in the second go-round with punctuation from Squire and Buford. The full band enters playing to a straight rhythm in the key of B minor featuring more hot licks from Howe. Just shy of the one-minute mark, the band settles into the verse rhythm with its syncopated rock-funk beat in the key of G major that impels the listener to leave their seat and shake whatever they’ve got. The vocals feature three-part harmonies from Anderson, Squire and Howe, with the latter two backing off on phrase-closing lines. A slight break in the rhythm occurs in the first two lines of the chorus with Buford and Squire shifting from steady rhythm to beat punctuation; this is followed by a complete break in key and rhythm where Anderson and the backing singers engage in call-and-response over a clever chord pattern of Am, F#m and G. My first reaction is “Oh, shit, why did they have to go progressive on me right now?” but I muster up enough patience to see how things play out, receiving my due award when they resume kicking ass after a brief transitional passage.
The next verse ends with a line of scat (non-metaphysical), introducing a lengthy instrumental section in F# major. Howe takes the first four measures on electric sitar, followed by eight measures of Wakeman on harpsichord. I’m not particularly thrilled with the choice of instrumentation but things begin to pick up again after Howe drops in a few lines of slide, then returns to the rougher guitar sound that grabbed my attention in the first place. Unfortunately, it’s followed by a superfluous bridge that further detracts from the more compelling forward movement. FINALLY we get back to the rock-heavy verses, only to experience another interruption in the flow, basically the Am-F#m-G passage with Anderson singing solo over light flute. The sound begins to build, finding a foundation in a reprise of the B minor pre-verse pattern. That pattern gives way to a heavily punctuated section marked by harmonic scat singing and sharp rhythmic breaks before returning to the B minor pattern. This is where Steve Howe starts exploring the melodic possibilities, employing a cleaner tone in a solo that reveals his mastery of modality while contrasting nicely with the background music dominated by the organ and Buford’s aggressive attack. While I question some of the choices to downshift and interrupt the song’s essential drive, I can see how those diversions would have sounded pretty exciting to a live audience.
You may have noticed that I skipped the album that transformed Yes into progressive superstars. I’ve always felt that Fragile was a transitional album in that the band was still getting familiar with Rick Wakeman after the departure of Tony Kaye and hadn’t quite figured out how to integrate Wakeman’s impressive capabilities. There’s some good stuff on Fragile, but when I listen to the album, I get the distinct feeling that they could have done better. Close to the Edge confirmed that feeling and then some.
I was born after the progressive peak and find it absolutely incredible that there was a period in rock history when the leading progressive bands topped the album charts and had no problem filling arenas to capacity. In our time, progressive rock is considered a niche genre, and the peak period is remembered as much for the punk counter-reaction to the genre’s “excesses” as for the music it produced.
I think the devaluation of progressive rock is tragic, and not only because of the many fine works produced during that era. It’s tragic because it ignores the contributions of some excellent musicians who had declared war on the status quo in a quest to expand rock’s boundaries. Close to the Edge is a shining example of superb musicians exploring new pathways in rock music, and the album will forever remain one of the high points of the peak progressive rock era of the early 70s.