I was recently reminded of a piece of music criticism from back when music criticism wasn’t the province of punters like me: “I regret to announce the final appearance of the Journey Award for the worst album by a California band. Having released two LPs – Captured and Escape – Journey accomplished the astonishing feat of tying itself for the prize, which has therefore been retired for reasons of gross redundancy.” – Greil Marcus, 1981
I’ve been known to be hard on the band from the City By The Bay, and I stand behind my statements regarding their latter day work, but I wanted to clarify something about why most people who like rock/pop ought to own the album Escape in some form or another. It is not for “Don’t Stop Believin’,” that’s for damn sure. That song has become such a punchline, such a lazy choice for those who opt to secure it, and such a Pavlovian manipulation that the only place where it deserves to be recognized is on a list of songs nobody ever needs to hear again. That list includes “Celebrate” and “We Will Rock You.”
But Escape does have two compelling arguments going for it; one more than the other. On lesser terms, “Who’s Cryin’ Now” is a perfect bit of adult contemporary pop, gilded with keyboardist Jonathan Cain (previously with The Babys) piano sounds. It’s not an anthem and it is not a hard rocker. It could have been done by just about any Lite Rock entity from the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, and yet there is something to the ease of the song that is very pleasing.
Long before I secured Escape the LP, I had the single for “Who’s Cryin’ Now” and in every respect I find it a superior single to “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It has aged better and has had the benefit of not being married to millions of superfluous connotations (The Sopranos, Family Guy, any sports team that pulls a come-from-behind win). The 45 rpm record itself is a better single because, on the B-side of “Who’s Cryin’ Now” is the main, clinching reason why you should care about Escape, if not Journey. Even if in an edited form, “Mother, Father” is a pure slab of hard rock with all the operatic dynamics one associates with high quality AOR from that time period. It is a song that even the most committed Journey hater has to bite their cheek on, and through clenched teeth admit, that is pretty good.
As a song that deals with family dysfunction, even though it does drift toward the band’s penchant for lyrical affirmation at times, it is one of the rare times in the band’s history that they have written and performed a tune with a clear point to make, on a subject outside of standard rock tropes, and boy do they sell this thing.
The important point that must be made is that it is all about the song here, as guitarist Neal Schon really only wails on the guitar toward the end. It is mostly about a building dread and a heightening tension throughout the track, with a satisfyingly emotional explosion by the turn of the chorus into the instrumental bridge. Schon is not the star here, but saves his firepower for complete service to the song.
The same goes for singer Steve Perry. One could say his vocals here, all passion and harmonies, are some of his finest. While that is true, it is also true that vocalists that came after him have all performed remarkably well on it, with the top-line reading drummer Deen Castronovo. He gives the song his all and it loses none of its power through his performance, and that is because (to paraphrase) it isn’t the singer, but the song.
Maybe my rebuttal of Marcus’ opinion is a few decades late, and maybe my opinion won’t mean that much on the ten-story bonfire of points of view, but I say that as pointless as he once claimed Journey’s Escape to be, it gave the world “Mother, Father” and for me, that is enough. And the album cover’s cool too.