Civilian review by Jason Rubin
You may have read my positive review of Giant For a Day. If so, you're probably thinking I will also rave about Civilian. Well, rave may be a strong word to describe my feelings about this album, but I will say at the outset that Civilian is for me the quintessential "guilty pleasure." Why guilty? Because I should know better. This album is chock full of rock cliches, is highly derivative, and panders to commercial radio programmers. It reeks of stuff stolen from the Who and Led Zeppelin - and yet I enjoy (most of) it.
The most progressive thing about the album is the way the title is hidden within the lettering of Gentle Giant. A friend had to point it out to me and it still took me a minute to get it. I didn't care, though. When this album came out, I was already convinced that the group had broken up. I had read all kinds of swan song references into songs from Giant For a Day (like Thank You, Take Me, and It's Only Goodbye) and assumed that would be the last new release from the band. So when Civilian came out, I was shocked and ecstatic. I was also very into the Who and Led Zeppelin, so it's apparent lack of Gentle Giant-ishness didn't bother me much.
Production-wise, in keeping with the latest fashion, the drums are far out in front and have a fat sound. You can't miss it on Convenience (on which Gary becomes the last member of the group to earn a composing credit), but it also intrudes on every other cut. Drums sounded perfect in the 70s; I don't know why anyone felt a need to mess with them. That's not a knock to John, who is solid as the Rock of Gibraltar, as usual. But it's grating and prevents the songs from establishing more interesting textures and colors.
All Through the Night is a legitimate rocker; Giant or not, this is a great rock & roll tune. Gary rips through the leads with high testosterone and John and Ray keep the bottom percolating. Derek brings out the soul singer inside him and the whole thing just kicks. It leads into Shadows on the Street, which thankfully brings Kerry back to the lead vocalist's microphone (no lead vox on Giant For a Day). Unfortunately, it's not much of a song. Its monotony is broken up by those big, fat drums, which, rather than saving the piece, nails the coffin shut on it.
Number One is enjoyable, shifting rhythms and textures, with lots of Kerry noodling in the background. The drum-roll-with-scream, however, is lifted from the Who's Won't Get Fooled Again and doesn't come close to comparing to it.
My favorite cut is Underground. I always like when Giant use sound effects in the intro to songs, and the subway train pulling into the station and closing its doors is a perfect segue to the tune. The song itself features strong work by the whole band, Ray, Derek, and Kerry, in particular. I wish the song were longer. In fact, even by Giant standards, Civilian is a very short album. This is even more incredible considering the two unreleased tracks from Under Construction, and the bonus track Heroes, which I'll get to later. It's hard to argue that the other songs weren't good enough to be on this album.
I Am a Camera is interesting for two reasons. First, the shutter sound effects at the beginning and end are fun; and second, because the same year Civilian came out, Yes released Drama, featuring a song called In the Lens that includes the line, "I am a camera." Unfortunately for Giant fans, Drama and Into the Lens are both better than Civilian and I Am a Camera.
Inside Out is a very strong track. The drums and overall mood of the song evoke In Through the Out Door-era Led Zeppelin. At nearly six minutes long, this is the one track they developed fully. It is, perhaps, the one progressive track on the album, but it is neither complex nor does it evoke jazz or classical influences. But it is one track on the album you can say is not just a commercial throwaway.
It's Not Imagination, in my opinion, is a terrible song. I find it pretty unlistenable, mainly because of the vocals and lyrics. The CD of Civilian, however, is saved by the inclusion of Heroes. This is a great song that should have been completed and officially released. Maybe it doesn't fit all that well with the concept of the album, but the typically shitty day of Everyman isn't much of a concept anyway. After Civilian, there was clearly no place for Giant to go. That's all there is.
- Jason Rubin