“The arrow flies while you breathe,” Geddy Lee sings on “The Garden,” the tear-jerking orchestral-rock finale from Rush‘s 19th studio album, Clockwork Angels. “The hours tick away,” he adds. “The cells tick away.“
Back in 2012, that cinematic track closed only one story: the dystopian narrative that flows through the LP. Listening now, one year after Neil Peart‘s death from brain cancer, the words inevitably carry more weight — an almost prescient sense of finality, both for Rush and the drummer and lyricist himself.
“The Garden,” like the rest of Clockwork Angels, arose from Peart’s desire to create a “fictional world” with his words. The prog-rock trio had gone conceptual before on specific songs, including “2112” and the two-part “Cygnus X1,” but never across an entire album. And inspired by the futuristic “steampunk” style of his sci-fi novelist friend Kevin J. Anderson (who would later co-author a book expanding on this very project), he created a story set in a “world lit only by fire.”
“This ‘one of many possible worlds’ is driven by steam, intricate clockworks and alchemy,” Peart wrote in a Rush press biography. “That last element occurred to me because I was intrigued by Diane Ackerman’s use of a few alchemical symbols as chapter heads in [2004’s] An Alchemy of Mind. They seemed elegant, mysterious and powerful. Soon I learned about an entire set of runic hieroglyphs for elements and processes, and as with the tarot cards for Vapor Trails and the Hindu game of Leela for Snakes and Arrows, I became fascinated with an ancient tradition.”
Peart developed lyrical “chapters,” with symbols marking each character or mood. The hieroglyph for “Earth” represents “The Garden,” appearing at “11 o’clock” on the final album cover.
Although Clockwork Angels, like many Rush albums, thrives on rich, philosophical themes, the music is some of their most melodic and accessible. “The Garden” perfectly balances the band’s heady and hummable sides, stripping away virtuosity and bombast to showcase Peart’s lyric, Lee’s tender vocal and Alex Lifeson‘s restrained guitar work.
Listen to Rush’s ‘The Garden’
As Lifeson told Metal Express Radio, the song originally featured sampled strings. But he and Lee were the “catalysts” in recruiting veteran string arranger David Campbell, who added another layer of warmth to the finished piece.
The string session, which took place at Hollywood’s Ocean Way Recording in January 2012, was a sentimental high point for the band.
“I stood in the control room listening while the strings were being recorded,” Peart recalled in the bio. “It occurred to me that all songwriters should experience the sensual delight of hearing their songs performed by an accomplished string section. For example, when these virtuoso artists on violin, viola, cello and double-bass executed David’s plangent orchestration for ‘The Garden,’ there was not a dry eye in the studio.”
But the orchestrations — and every other instrument on “The Garden” — feel like a platform for Lee’s vocal, one of the most nakedly emotional of his career.
“For me, ‘The Garden’ was a major step forward as a songwriter and as a singer,” he reportedly recalled in a promotional interview from 2012. “I’ve always wanted to do that kind of song where the melody was the thing that made it connect with you, that gave it resonance, where the voice kind of comes out of the soundscape and delivers the story to you in a heartfelt way. To achieve that without it being schmaltzy or feeling forced, and with the music around the voice to be very relaxed, I think can only come from years of playing and from confidence.”
And Peart’s meditative poetry sparks that performance. He was always one of rock’s wisest lyricists, dwelling on Big Themes like adolescent angst (“Subdivisions”) and alienation brought from fame (“Limelight”). And “The Garden” ranks among his most direct and primal work — one final reflection on mortality and maximizing every moment.
“The measure of a life is a measure of love,” Lee sings. “So hard to earn, so easily burned / In the fullness of time / A garden to nurture and protect / It’s a measure of a life.”
Before his death, Peart quietly battled brain cancer for three and a half years — given that timeline, he clearly didn’t conceive “The Garden” as a literal goodbye. But for his fans, still searching for meaning amid the sadly meaningless, it serves as a symbolic one.