Van Der Graaf Generator Pawn Hearts- 1971
RMR Album Rating- 10 (Perfect)
Pawn Hearts is one of the most insanely interesting and complex albums in my record collection. Plus, the album is about insanity, and every part of the album is performed with perfectly insane precision.
However, the album is not for undiscerning ears, as it is also one of the most challenging albums in my record collection, and it is incredibly dense in terms of instrumental and lyrical content.
Instrumentally, Pawn Hearts is mainly driven by the saxophone, organ, and mellotron. Plus, it also features Robert Fripp from King Crimson on Guitar. These instruments combined with the way Peter Hammill changes his vocal tone back and forth between soft and soothing signing to chaotic screaming is amazing. Pawn Hearts is also a very heavy album. It is not heavy in a metal or guitar laden way, as Fripp’s contribution on guitar is very subtle, but the album is so dark and insane that it just has an extremely heavy and dense feel to it.
Lyrically, the album is very dark. There are only three songs, and they all cover the same lyrical content, which is mainly centered on death, suicide, loneliness, and most importantly– insanity.
My interpretation of the first track, “Lemmings,” is about a character who sees all of mankind in a state of demise. The definition of a lemming is “a person who unthinkingly joins a mass movement, especially in a headlong rush to destruction.” The song’s character’s view on life is analogous to being controlled by a machine, and Peter Hammill’s lyrics bring the saying “the daily grind” vividly to life with interestingly horrific lyrics like:
“Greasy machinery slides on the rails/ Young minds and bodies on steel spokes impaled/ Cogs tearing bones, cogs tearing bones/ Iron-throated monsters are forcing our screams/ Mind and machinery box-press the dreams.”
A case can also be made that he also sees humanity as pawns in someone else’s game (hence the title of the album, Pawn Hearts), and although the character contemplates suicide himself with lines like “What cause is there left but to die,” he ultimately chooses life for the sake of future children, and the song ends with the character asking “What choice is there but to live?” All in all, the lyrics are ambiguous at best, so it is difficult to discern their exact meaning, but there is plenty of pure lyrical poetry to support multiple interpretations of the song’s meaning.
The next song, “Man-erg” is no less lyrically or instrumentally complex, and it also deals with insanity. The character questions who he really is, and he contemplates the differences in all men, which ultimately leads to his realization that all men are the same, regardless of what an individual man might stand for or has accomplished. In other words, a man is just a man. The most powerful lyrical passages are the first, where the character states that “the Killer lives inside me/ yes, I can feel him move,” and the last where the character states: “I’m just a man/ and killers, angles, all are these/ dictators, saviors, refugees/ in war and peace/ as long as Man lives”; these lines reiterate the point that all men, regardless of their ethics or accomplishments are all the same. Again, this is incredibly dense and dark lyrical content, and— like “Lemmings”— even after reading the lyrics, they can be difficult to understand and are definitely open to interpretation.
Lastly, there’s the 23-minute “A Plague of the Lighthouse Keepers.” It is dominated by David Jackson’s saxophone and Hammill’s lyrics and vocals. There’s no way to summarize the depth of the song with brevity and do it justice, but ultimately it’s about a lighthouse keeper’s loneliness that slowly leads to his insanity. The imagery and terror of the song far transcends normal rock lyrics, and the verse used would seem more fitting as an Edgar Allen Poe poem, than a rock song.
Ultimately, Pawn Hearts and Van Der Graaf Generator are severely underrated and even unknown by many fans in the progressive rock community, not to mention the general rock community. But, neither the band nor the record should be, and once Pawn Hearts’ seemingly impenetrable shell of complexity is cracked (which is not easy to do), it proves to be an enlightening and haunting listen that I rank as one of my favorite progressive rock albums.
The 20-minute epic song structure really defines progressive rock. “A Plague of the Lighthouse Keepers” is not only one of the first (being released in ’71), but it is also one of the most influential: Yes’ “Close to the Edge” borrowed its chaos, Jethro Tull’s “A Passion Play” borrowed its complex lyrical content and varied instrumental approach (especially Ian Anderson’s use of the saxophone). Lastly, on Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready,” Peter Gabriel borrowed Peter Hammill’s rising and falling vocal technique.
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