“Greatest Hits” by Styx

Styx was not a particularly good band on the whole as Arena Rock acts go, but their overall output is such a complex mix of good and bad that I felt the only way to cover the full spectrum of their output was to review their most prominent Greatest Hits album in full. It’s the first compilation album I’ve ever covered in my album reviews, but again, I felt it was the only way to do justice to the scope of this band’s problems and occasional strengths.

The first problem with Styx as a band is obvious—the group’s primary vocalist sounds like a white Steve Urkel. Dennis DeYoung had his moments as a songwriter, but there are very few less credible Rock vocalists to have actually achieved a major career. Sometimes DeYoung would hand the mike over to his bandmate Tommy Shaw, particularly on Shaw’s own composition, which tend to be far more Rock-edged and which even DeYoung seemed to understand he couldn’t pull off convincingly. But frankly, while Shaw’s compositions tended to be more consistent than DeYoung’s, Shaw’s harsh croak was only slightly preferable to DeYoung’s nasal whine.

The band’s second problem was that they had a frequent tendency to dabble in gooey Soft Rock balladry, and this was a style for which they showed no aptitude whatsoever. Their first hit, “Lady”, was in this style, and in a just world that might have doomed their careers there and then (the song had to be re-recorded for this album due to label issues, but in any form it’s a saccharine embarrassment). Even worse is “Babe”, which somehow became one of their signature hits but which is so tritely-written and badly-sung that the result is indistinguishable from a late-career Chicago single. “Lorelei” is at least marginally better due to have slightly more of a Rock edge, but it’s still pretty unfortunate. And on the opposite side of the spectrum, “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” (apparently written by Shaw as a personal dig at DeYoung) and “Miss America” come across as needlessly belligerent and obnoxious.

That said, the band did definitely have its moments…the fact that they’ve retained a significant fanbase in the face of decades of critical scorn is not totally unjustified. DeYoung’s haunting “Suite Madame Blue” and Shaw’s blistering Rocker “Renegade” qualify as Rock classics. And despite their tendency to sound like warmed-over Queen at times, items like “Crystal Ball”, “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)”, and even the group’s biggest hit, the Prog-lite harmonic showcase “Come Sail Away” do have their pleasures (even if the latter makes its chosen metaphor far less evocative than it had been in Tom Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers” three years earlier). And while “The Grand Illusion” does exaggerate the group’s trademark bombast more than a little too far, you still have to acknowledge the validity of its message, which seems even more relevant in today’s social-media environment than it was at the time.

The final problem with the band, and the one that ultimately wound up being their undoing, is that their output became progressively sillier toward the end of their initial run of hits. The fact that they decided to start playing up their Prog-Rock influences just as Prog-Rock was forcibly going out of style was a questionable decision to begin with, but the two Prog-style Concept Albums they released in the early Eighties made even the most outrageous excesses of the genre’s Seventies heyday look respectable by comparison.

Their 1981 album Paradise Theater was their biggest hit commercially, but its convoluted Concept (which none of the band members except DeYoung really seemed to be on board with) resulted in some pretty contrived songwriting. The two songs from it included here, “The Best of Times” and “Too Much Time on My Hands”, are attractive enough musically, but they both feature absolutely ridiculous lyrics. “The Best of Times”, a synth ballad reminiscent of late-career ELO, is built around an embarrassingly pretentious and inept appropriation of the opening lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Meanwhile, in “Too Much Time on My Hands”, the entire song is built around a common phrase (“Is it any wonder?”) that Tommy Shaw clearly didn’t understand how to use properly, resulting in a confusing, illiterate mess of a lyric.

The album that would ultimately kill the band, though, was the legendary disaster Kilroy Was Here (they would eventually reunite as a kind of nostalgic niche band, but Kilroy was essentially the end of the line for them at hitmakers). There are two singles from that album included here: the second, “Don’t Let It End”, is merely another soppy love ballad when divorced from the album’s context, but the first is the band’s notorious calling card among their legions of detractors…the infamous “Mr. Roboto”. This combination of confusing out-of-context story song, anti-technology screed and repetitive nonsense chorus is probably the most ridiculous Prog-Rock track of all time, and the fact that it actually became a hit is what ultimately doomed the band to their current status as Pop-culture punchlines. I’d complain that it makes no sense outside the album’s story and thus shouldn’t have been released as a single, but frankly, it doesn’t make any more sense if you do know the album’s story.

There is one track from Styx’s “reunion” era included here, “Show Me the Way”, and while it is reasonably pretty, it definitely comes across as something of a diminishing echo of their heyday-era work. This Greatest Hits collection comes off as disappointing on the whole, just as Styx’s overall output did, but it has a few good tracks and at least shows that the band had some measure of talent and weren’t outright bottomfeeders like some of their peers from the era. I can’t really say I recommend this album (or, frankly, this band), but I will give it this: it was never boring, and that’s more than anyone can say for the Greatest Hits of some of the bands that succeeded them.

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