Listening to seventies Rush enervates me — how much falsetto can one handle when the riffs aren’t as good as Jimmy Page’s and the rhythm section isn’t as weird-granitic as Jones-Bonham? Fortunately Rush discovered their potential when New Wave forced long hairs across the globe to tighten up, consider other instruments, and keep an ear on how other white people assimilated Caribbean rhythms.
I should point out that I don’t own and haven’t heard 1987’s Hold Your Fire, home of the evergreen “Time Stand Still,” a song recorded for high school yearbook quotes, for many people the last time “classic” Rush got an MTV airplay hit.
1. Power Windows (1985)
The synths glint like sunlight off skyscraper windows, but it’s the controlled bursts from Alex Lifeson’s guitar that fans remember about Power Windows: the way he layers his solo in “Marathon” amid Geddy Lee’s tugging bass line and subtle keyboard drapery or those trademark arpeggios in “Emotion Detector,” for example. The pleasure of Rush on fire compensates for a thin mix. I hope I’m not awarding them cool points by arguing that “Manhattan Project” could’ve fit, conceptually and aurally, on Kate Bush’s Never For Ever. Criticizing Reagan-era conformity with the most antiseptic sound known to Canadian man, Rush are double agents betraying their paymasters, following the beat of their mystic rhythms. “We expose our insecure thoughts,” Lee sings, but Power Windows refuses to go for threnody when it can go for car anthems. One of the decade’s best albums, and the kids knew why. I look forward to being wrong about Arcade Fire in a decade.
2. Signals (1982)
The songs get terser, their absorption of every New Wave trend less subtle. A compliment, I assure you, for by 1982 I preferred Rush doing The Police in different voices than The Police: what’s “New World Man” than an untroubled, therefore eerie depiction of the post-sixties humanoid of “Omegaman”? What’s “Digital Man” but “Secret Journey” with sinew? “Chemistry” is dull chug-a-lug Rush with Motels synths creeping along the carpet; the real action is in “Subdivisions,” finding something ugly and inspiring in pre-fab homes and J.C. Penny, with “Losing It” the wistful sequel. On the other hand they pine for nuclear destruction behind the mask of deterrence (“Countdown”).
3. Moving Pictures (1981)
Rush’s biggest selling studio album (three times platinum and counting) marked the last time they reached guitar/synth parity even though the ratio wasn’t as skewed as purists liked to think. The instrumental is my favorite track, “Tom Sawyer” strides out of the past into a present on a rebus pattern of keyboards, the most celebrated of Rush’s New World Men.
4. Permanent Waves (1980)
“The Spirit of Radio” was cool enough for Saint Etienne to pilfer for the sake of a trance/pop house confection, “Freewill” ominous enough to get slipped into the midnight hour at the Republican National Convention by a sneaky young Randist (NB: this didn’t happen). This 1980 album ranks lower than expected because it’s not as fast as I remembered; they’re still learning to assimilate the synths, so when their nerve fails them they pump up the acoustics. Billy Corgan and I both like “Entre Nous,” although it has too many words (“I think it’s time to realize the spaces in between,” what?).
5. Grace Under Pressure (1984)
I’ve friends who rate Grace highly; like its sleeve projects, it boasts a cold beauty at its intermittent best. “The Body Electric” borrows Whitman to convey that ol’ devil paranoia. They apply the ska influences like peanut butter on soft bread (“Afterimage”) but do better with faux The Wall-era Pink Floyd (“Red Sector A”).
6. Presto (1989)
The Return to Guitars, which white people greeted with relief and enthusiasm in 1989 — absurd, for it’s not as if Rush had been Bronski Beat from 1980 to 1987. The title track, boasting sun-kissed acoustic guitars, tries to Bring It Back Home. AOR hit “Show Don’t Tell” had tricky chord sequences and a “Mixed Emotions”-like message: get off the fence cuz it’s creasin’ your butt. We know how to rock. When I saw Rush live in spring ’92 an inflatable rabbit based on the sleeve got inflated, so I feel grateful. Producer Rupert Hine has a fascination with crowded musical tracks in a mix the width of a fingernail (“War Paint”) better suited to vocals with a greater histrionic sense than Geddy Lee; he also produced Stevie Nicks’ The Other Side of the Mirror a few months earlier — a spookier record, including its Bruce Hornsby and Kenny G collaborations.