Neil Peart, a fan of fantasy and science fiction literature as well as Ayn Rand's philosophy of individualism, was 23 when he wrote most of the lyrics to 2112. For the 20-minute title track (in seven parts) which takes up all of side one, he wrote a sci-fi parable about an individual who wakes up from a computer-controlled conformist society. Twenty three years later, the Wachowski brothers put out The Matrix, a sci-fi parable also about an individual who wakes up from a computer-controlled conformist society. They must have had 2112 on repeat as they wrote the film. Both are great in the very same way: only seemingly clever, they're actually pure style over substance.
There's something to be said for style over substance, though. When done right, it's entertaining, enthusiastic, even sincere. There's a real charm to the naïve writing that runs throughout both the movie and the album.
In the epic song "2112," the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx have created a world where people are complacent, happy, and entirely equal. They've done this by controlling the news and entertainment of the masses. When a young loner finds an ancient guitar ("What can this strange device be?/When I touch it, it gives forth a sound/It's got wires that vibrate and give music/What can this thing be that I found?"), he realizes it could revolutionize the entertainment industry.
He excitedly brings it to the Priests, who shut him down. Then, in a dream, he confronts an oracle who tells him how the elder race, the ones who created the guitar in the first place, left the planet long ago but will return "to claim the home where they belong." The song ends with an oppressive victory, as the elders return, declaring: "Attention all planets of the Solar Federation/We have assumed control/We have assumed control."
Okay, so the story is kinda dumb, betraying the dated influences of a 23-year-old Canadian kid in 1976. But the "story" without the music would be like a version of The Matrix that didn't have all those awesome kung fu fight scenes: flat and transparent. When the music is added, the words are transformed. Driven by Peart's award-winning drumming (sometimes quantity can lead to quality), the interplay between Alex Lifeson's guitar and Geddy Lee's bass has a narrative all its own. Add to that Geddy's Robert Plant-inspired voice, and the specifics of the lyrics cease to matter. The song--nay, the whole album!--takes on a life of its own.
Side two, of course, has similar flaws. "A Passage to Bangkok" is a simple travel metaphor for the joys of marijuana and opium; "The Twilight Zone" is little more than post-adolescent surrealism; "Lessons," written by Lifeson, is fragmented poetry to a rock beat; and "Tears" is the requisite ballad. The last song, "Something for Nothing," is by far the album's best four minutes of pure rock 'n' pop-philosophy. Still, all of the songs manage to rise to their potential thanks to the music and Geddy's voice.