16. Styx, Pieces of Eight
It’s the nineteen-seventies, and Styx’s Pieces of Eight is a concept album, so it’s absolutely got to have some weighty philosophical concerns pressed into its grooves. In this instance, the album was preoccupied by the influence of money, supposedly from the angle of examining its nefarious influence in all aspects of modern life. It was a surely a subject the band had a sudden intimate acquaintance with, having broken through the arena rock stardom with their prior album, 1977’s The Grand Illusion, bolstered by the Top 10 single “Come Sail Away.” That condemnation of material gain in favor of the purity of personal artistic dreams isn’t what everyone heard on the album, though. Most notably, there was the scorching assessment delivered by famed critic Lester Bangs in the pages of Rolling Stone, calling the album “sheer self-aggrandizement on the most puerile level,” also dismissing the whole thing as “narcissistic slop.” If Styx was pushing back against materialistic excess, it was about the only sort of excess with which they took issue.
By the evidence of the songs they churned out, Styx was luminously enamored with bombast. Even at its leanest, the songs on Pieces of Eight are big, big, big. “I’m O.K” is in some ways as simple as its title, but then there’s Dennis DeYoung’s trademark floridly effusive vocals soaring over the afterburner of his silly keyboard fills, Tommy Shaw’s gushing guitar solo furthering the sense of imbalance. It’s prog rock with a more eager version of theatricality. Styx never really sounded like they meant to cavort upon misty mountains, but they shrewdly knew there was a good payday in aiming their music straight at those who did. “Sing for the Day” starts like a dispatch from some synth-driven Renaissance Faire of the future, and “Lords of the Ring” comes across like it was written by an especially dopey undergraduate who barely remembered the plot of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic story but was really game to fake his way through a drunken recap (“And though the legend was pure fantasy/ We still need the hope it brings, so let’s sing”).
Styx fares a bit better when their ambition fades a little, and all they want it to build a good rock song. “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” and “Renegade,” both Shaw compositions and both Top 40 singles, are surprisingly satisfying, largely trading grandiosity for comparative directness. If the guitar solo on the latter is a little wanky, well, it also sorta rocks, in that big, dumb fun sort of way. If these tracks arguably represent the points where the album isn’t living up to its stated grand ambitions, they’re also the songs that feel agreeably free from the preposterous muck of high-gloss seventies rock god dreaming. And when Styx just got down to the business of being a rock band, they were actually pretty good at it, with evident skillful musicianship and just the right dose of passion. I wouldn’t posit they were a great band, but they were probably better than their somewhat sorry reputation indicates. Their path to success argued against them making the material leaner and focusing on that. Record buyers made it clear that they wanted Styx to continue swirling in grand illusions.
Somewhat improbably, Styx simply got bigger from here. Their next album, 1979’s Cornerstone, delivered the band’s first chart-topping single, and they had their first album make it to the number one position on the relevant Billboard chart with 1981’s Paradise Theater. While there are all sorts of albums bearing the band’s name that were released later, for all practical purposes they wrapped things up with 1983’s ludicrous concept album hit Kilroy Was Here. Reunions would come, but the band broke up in 1984, making way for DeYoung and Shaw to offer up two of the great guilty pleasure singles of the nineteen-eighties. Seriously, I freakin’ love the song waiting behind that second hyperlink in the preceding sentence.
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone