Graded on a Curve: Journey, Infinity

Listening to Journey inspires me–to stop listening to Journey. I’ve always hated them, mainly because they’re the incarnation of late seventies/early eighties AOR shlock, and I offer prospective Journey buyers two simple words of advice: Stay Home.

Journey’s 1978 LP Infinity has sold some 3,000,000 copies and counting, but had we been lucky it wouldn’t exist. Its predecessor, 1977’s Next, sold so poorly Columbia Records was on the verge of dropping the band, and odds are Journey would have gone the way of Head East had they not hired Steve “Castrato” Perry and gone big time mainstream on Infinity, which won the hearts and minds of the sorts of people who consider Footloose the pinnacle of modern American filmmaking.

Journey’s songs are safe, sturdy, reliable, and gooey with emotion–Volvos with feelings. Volvos may be boring but they sell, and there’s case to be made for boring; there are plenty of people out there who are perfectly content to drive the speed limit, and as far as they’re concerned Infinity makes the perfect accompaniment to their 30-minute stay-in-the-right-lane commute from home in the suburbs to job in accounting firm and back.

Very few music listeners would call Journey a hard rock band, but Infinity tells a different story–trapped within the MOR schmalz there’s a Led Zeppelin screaming to be let out. For every “Patiently” and “Opened the Door” there’s an “Anytime” or “Can Do,” both of which pack a surprising wallop. Five of Infinity’s songs have muscle; you have to look beyond their icky make-it-stop exteriors.

But it’s the exteriors–for good or ill–that stick with you. Infinity’s songs surge and swell, Perry sings his yearning tonsils out, and you can practically hear tender teen hearts breaking across the continent. Journey may be heavier than they’re given credit for, but I’m betting very few Journey fans love Infinity for its power chords. They love it for its impeccable harmonies, buffed-to-a-sheen studio polish, and unrelentingly earnest songs. Ask a Journey fan to name a hard rock band, and odds are he’ll say REO Speedwagon.

What I find most sinister about Infinity is the way its songs have managed to worm-hole their way, through decades of sheer repetition, into my subconscious, to the extent that I can no longer summon up the energy to despise them. Despite what I said at the beginning of this review I don’t stop listening to them when I hear them–over the years disdain has softened to amused tolerance, and amused tolerance has given way to actual affection, followed in its turn to unimaginable self-loathing. When a Journey song comes on the car radio, I no longer turn the dial. I sing along.

This is especially true in the cases of “Feeling That Way,” with its Elton John School piano intro, heavenly vocals and big chorus, and San Francisco homage “Lights,” which never fails to remind me of a college dorm roommate and Journey fanatic who sounded exactly like Steve Perry and never missed an opportunity to prove it. I’m also a fan of “La Do Da,” because it’s a better nonsense song than The Police’s “Do Do Do” and beats it all to hell in the velocity department.

But my favorite is “Wheel in the Sky,” and not just because Killdozer references it at length in “The Pig Was Cool.” I love it for its “Wanted Dead or Alive” vibe and the metaphysical questions raised by its lyrics. Is Perry singing about the wheel of karma? The steering wheel of the Camaro of the Creator? Or the long-running TV game show Wheel of Fortune? Is Vanna White up there, spinning the wheel to decide our fates? Will we die young? Or walk away with $91,000 like that guy who guessed the Lone Ranger?

When he found out I was writing this review my pal Michael Salkind said, “A journey begins with a single step. Do not take that step.” And he’s right–take that step and you’ll regret it, whether it be because you’ll find yourself in a PTSD support group or end up like me, trapped in an inextricable double bind. I hate Journey. I love Journey. I wish they would just go away. I would miss them if they did.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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