The "intelligence is relative, anyway" guide to Rush, Part VII

Farewell to Mercury/Polygram, hello Atlantic (coincidentally the new home of former manager Val Azzoli). Farewell to producers named “Broon” or “Peter,” hello Rupert “love that Fixx sound” Hine.

Everything else stayed pretty much the same. The synths were prominent but not overpowering, the band dabbled in a few styles (even an infamous lapse into rap), the songs were generally a consistent 4-5 minutes, the albums came out every 24 months or so, and Rush kept its core audience without substantial gains or losses.

Presto (1989)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics/etc.)

This one doesn’t introduce itself well. First, just look at that album cover. The rabbits suggest something sly and tricky. The gray tone suggests either something darker or a mistake in photo editing.

Then there’s the opener, Show Don’t Tell, which is really a mess. Good guitar riff and some rhythmic change-ups, followed by some meandering verses and choruses propping up one of Neil Peart’s weakest lyrical offerings to date.

Chain Lightning is a solid piece of ear candy, but it doesn’t suggest that the album is going to vie for the title of best post-Moving Pictures Rush album.

But then comes The Pass. A breathtaking one-way conversation with someone on the brink of self-destruction, it’s one of the band’s greatest artistic triumphs. Peart masterfully paints the portrait, from the “proud swagger out of the schoolyard” to the “trembling on a rocky ledge, staring down into a heartless sea, done with life on a razor’s edge.” Geddy Lee’s maturing voice pleads with the young anti-hero — “All of us get lost in the darkness / Dreamers learn to steer by the stars.” The song builds to a crescendo over a few piano chords, then abruptly cuts out the accompaniment as Lee sings the last words.

Wikipedia rounds up quotes suggesting this is one of the band’s favorites. It’s not a jock-rock fave like Tom Sawyer or a cheerful singalong like Closer to the Heart, but it’s the most moving track in the Rush catalog.

The rest of the album is consistently interesting. The weakest songs are the titletrack and Anagram (for Mongo), but on the latter, you have to give Peart credit for the effort of creating a song out of anagrams and a Blazing Saddles reference.

Some of the highlights: Scars is a showcase for Peart’s studies of African rhythms, with a galloping bass and world-music guitar riffing to match. Hand Over Fist is a clever retelling of rock, paper, scissors that captures the dual moods of calm and anger. Available Light starts slowly but builds beautifully to give new life to the familiar Peart theme (see Time Stand Still) of wanting to stop the world and soak in every echo of a beautiful time or place.

AllMusic gives this one 4.5 stars, the highest of any post-Signals album. It’s my second favorite of this era (we’ll get to #1, maybe later this week).

Roll the Bones (1991)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics/etc.)

The anti-Presto, starting brightly and dropping in quality a la Hold Your Fire.

Dreamline is a prototypical Rush opener — a surging guitar rocker on a familiar Peart theme (the power of dreams to rise above mediocrity) that opened live shows for years to come. Bravado, full of yearning and a tinge of regret at a slower tempo than most Rush songs, defiantly claims that the dreams are worth it even if we fail to achieve them. (The retelling of the Icarus tale — “if we burn our wings, flying too close to the sun” — is a little more subdued than Iron Maiden’s version.)

Then … oh dear.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Rush … rapping on the titletrack. It’s not a terrible song — urging us to live our lives without fear of fateful things we can’t control — but it’s hard not to hear that middle section and cringe.

The rest of this one is only intermittently intriguing. Heresy is a bitter but well-told remembrance of the just-ended Cold War and “all those wasted years” (and wasted lives). Everything else — including the return to instrumental rock with Where’s My Thing? — does little to keep your attention.

Seems strange that this one returned Rush to platinum status, but Dreamline was such a strong track that it likely lured a lot of record-buyers.

Next up: An abrupt change of direction, Rush’s best album since Moving Pictures, and the album that could easily have been their last.


2 thoughts on “The "intelligence is relative, anyway" guide to Rush, Part VII

  1. Ha! Freshman memories…for sure. in any case, a great continuation of the epic saga that is RUSH. Best band in the galaxy if I’m not mistaken…

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