Review Summary: Justice for money what can you say, we all know it's the American way
By 1981, Styx were one of the biggest bands in the world. They were fresh off the heels of three celebrated milestones (The Grand Illusion
, Pieces of Eight
, and Cornerstone
), and entering their theatrical/conceptual prime – building on the loose themes of their previous efforts and tying it all into more of a cohesive story. Paradise Theater
took the social/political uncertainty of the late 1970s (from marginalized groups protesting for equality to the Watergate scandal, it was a tumultuous era in American history) and used it to draw comparisons between America and the demolition of Chicago's Paradise Theatre. The album was Styx’s only #1 charting record in the US, and like its trio of acclaimed predecessors, it would go on to sell in excess of three million copies.
differed from other Styx albums in that it was the first significant departure from progressive-leaning rock ‘n’ roll towards grandiose, theatrical pop. As such, the record leaned heavily on frontman Dennis DeYoung, who conceived and developed the entire concept. DeYoung is credited as either the primary or sole songwriter on seven of the album’s eleven tracks, leaving Tommy Shaw (‘Too Much Time on My Hands’, ‘She Cares’) and James Young (‘Snowblind’, ‘Half-Penny, Two-Penny’) to fight for the leftover scraps. Although tensions within the band started with the unprecedented success of DeYoung’s #1 hit ‘Babe’ from 1979’s Cornerstone
, Paradise Theater
saw the rift continue to grow. Despite the increasing stylistic differences between DeYoung and Shaw/Young, Paradise Theater
was still a remarkable, cohesive success – and it was also the last time that could be said about any Styx record.
After a brief overture in ‘A.D. 1928’, the album truly begins with ‘Rockin’ the Paradise’ – a jaunty piano-rocker that sings of changing times for the theater (and by representation, America): “There's people puttin' us down, I know they're sayin' that we've gone lazy - to tell you the truth, we've all seen better days.” The thematic arc is loose but easy to follow, with the lively synth-rocker ‘Too Much Time on My Hands’ depicting a protagonist in financial ruin following the great depression (the theater, and America would fit into this same category) as Shaw sings of turning to drinking with “nothing to do and all day to do it.” The sing-along power ballad ‘The Best of Times’ represents the post-depression/post-war boom, while ‘Half-Penny, Two-Penny’ sings of the theater’s demolition and draws parallels to newfound corruption in the US: “Justice for money what can you say, we all know it's the American way.” The definitive conclusion of the concept album is when the old theater gets knocked down, but the future of America is left open to interpretation.
For as heavily as Dennis DeYoung dominates Paradise Theater
– and he does shine with moments like ‘Rockin’ The Paradise’ and ‘The Best of Times’ – Shaw and Young arguably do more in less time. ‘Too Much Time on My Hands’ was a massive hit for Shaw, and ‘She Cares’ is an underrated gem that covers the topic of remaining faithful to someone in a relationship, even through immense struggles. James Young – notorious for his gruff, at-times repugnant vocals – truly shines on Paradise Theater
, delivering what might be his best two performances back-to-back with ‘Snowblind’ (a reference to cocaine addiction metaphorically likened to a “devil in white” – also the song that fundamentalist Christian groups condemned for allegedly containing a satanic backwards-masked message, which led to the concept of 1983’s Kilroy Was Here
) and ‘Half-Penny, Two Penny’ (the album’s longest track which contains themes of financial corruption accented by an extended guitar solo/breakdown and spoken-word section). Paradise Theater
may have been DeYoung’s brainchild, but without the contributions of Shaw and Young, it would have been a very lean offering.
is possibly the biggest household name when it comes to Styx albums due to its sheer marketability and commercial presence at the time. It’s brimming with low-key greatest hits and lesser-known gems, but lacks a mega-hit such as a ‘Come Sail Away’ or ‘Renegade’ to anchor it in classic rock lore. It’s an extremely consistent experience with no filler or throwaway tunes, making it all too easy to listen to from front to end. While it lags just barely behind The Grand Illusion
and Pieces of Eight
as Styx’s artistic/creative cream-of-the-crop, it’s often cited as a fan favorite. With infectious choruses and allusions to the post-depression rise and fall of America, it’s easy to see why so many people related to it in 1981 and continue to as history’s vicious cycles endure.