"I've got my own moral compass to steer by/A guiding star beats a spirit in the sky." —from "Faithless"

To borrow a line from Beck, prog-rock trio Rush are a little worse for the wear, but they're wearing it well. Listening to Snakes and Arrows, it's easy to believe that these guys have been banging away at it since 1968, but it's also easy to see—and hear—that they've lost almost none of the vim and vigor that marked their youth. They can still play circles around musicians half their age, and even if their familiar storm of raging guitars, bone-rattling drums, and fluid bass riffs suggests that there's not much here in the way of sonic adventure or experimentation, the primal fury of their playing and the sheer complexity of their writing makes it clear that they're still a long way from phoning it in.

It's that genuine enthusiasm—even so far into their career—combined with drummer Neil Peart's increasingly open and confessional lyrics that makes Rush so appealing this late in the game. Their records have only become warmer and easier to embrace, without losing any of their drive or exuberance. And to that end, Snakes and Arrows might be something of a songwriting peak, even if it's occasionally a bleak contrast of religion and faith.

During a motorcycle journey across the United States, Peart was affected by the various Christian billboards that line America's roads. "Just seeing the power of evangelical Christianity and contrasting that with the power of fundamentalist religion all over the world in its different forms had a big effect on me," he said in an interview with Billboard.com. "I looked for the good side of faith. To me it ought to be your armor, something to protect you and something to console you in dark times. But it's more often being turned into a sword, and that's one big theme I'm messing with [on Snakes and Arrows]." (Peart goes into much more depth with his musings in a book about his travels, Roadshow: Landscape With Drums.)

With bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee as his mouthpiece, Peart surveys his surroundings and takes stock of modern times from a vantage point of age and wisdom … but still comes up short of solid answers. He's keenly aware of the strange malaise of our present state, and he's still sifting through questions of faith and belief, wrestling with the angels and trying to make sense of it all. Age might bring wisdom, but for Peart, it doesn't bring easy answers.

The hard-hitting album opener and first single "Far Cry" sets the tone for an album of open-handed spiritual inquiry. It's a song about war as much as it is about faith, with Peart seeing "pariah dogs and wandering madmen" everywhere he goes. He gives voice to the frustration and confusion of a generation: "It's a far cry from the world we thought we'd inherit/It's a far cry from the way we thought we'd share it/You can almost see the current flowing/You can almost see the circuits blowing."

Military imagery abounds in "Armor and Sword," where love's power to overcome aggression is called into doubt. Peart leaves a little room open for the idea of a heaven, but alas, not for grace: "No one gets to their heaven without a fight." Similar despair is found later in "The Larger Bowl": "Some things can never be changed/Some reasons will never come clear." And in "The Way the Wind Blows," human beings are cast as trapped in the futility of their own endeavors: "We can only grow the way the wind blows/On a bare and weathered shore/We can only bow to the here and now/In our elemental war."

Peart's world is desperately in need of a Savior, but lamentably, he never seems to find one. If nothing else, though, he finds a good starting point through humility and confession. In "Workin' Them Angels," he admits to his own culpability and reckless living: "All my life I've been workin' them angels overtime/Riding and driving and living so close to the edge." And in "Spindrift," he likens his own groundlessness to wild ocean spray. His own finite mind and human spirit can't come up with any reasonable answers, and he knows it: "What am I supposed to say?/Where are the words to answer you when you talk that way?"

The album's most telling song, though, is its anthemic, lyrical centerpiece, in which Peart calls himself "Faithless." It's a confession of disbelief that begins with a boast of self-sufficiency and an indictment of religion:

I've got my own moral compass to steer by
A guiding star beats a spirit in the sky
And all the preaching voices—
Empty vessels ringing so loud
As they move among the crowd
Fools and thieves are well disguised
In the temple and marketplace

His passion for avoiding religion becomes a mantra of defiance: "I will quietly resist." But his self-sufficiency quickly gives way to spiritual confusion: "I don't have faith in faith, and I don't believe in belief/You can call me faithless, but I still cling to hope, and I believe in love/And that's faith enough for me."

It's an empty declaration that is echoed in "We Hold On," the album's closer: "We could be down and gone/But we hold on." Talk is cheap, and, in the midst of so much toil—both physical and spiritual—and after so many admissions of frailty and uncertainty, Rush's nameless hope can't help but seem impotent. Listeners should be encouraged by the band's continued musical and spiritual restlessness, especially by the positive signs of humility seen on songs like "Spindrift." But we might also pray that Peart and his confederates find a more substantive hope—one with a Name—and become faithless no more.

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