So Rush has nothing left to prove at this point. Their careers won’t be judged by anything they do in the next 15-20 years. I’m just looking forward to the R50 box set. They’re still a top concert draw, and the only musical acts I can think of who are still selling albums after 30-plus years are the Stones and Bob Dylan. And the Stones and Dylan aren’t even played on the radio as far as I know. (Not that Rush is overplayed, but at least One Little Victory got some airtime on 98Rock.) I’d also doubt a Dylan live set would sell as well as Rush in Rio or R30.
Vapor Trails, flawed production and all, was an effective comeback album. The live CDs and Feedback were glorious historical roundups.
Anything Rush does at this point is a bonus. And I’ll stubbornly buy the CDs and push them up into the top five, even though most of their CD-era releases are easy picking for a few selective downloads.
Rush should always get credit for pushing the envelope in several different directions while remaining uniquely Rush. Prodded by exceptional young producer Nick Raskulinecz, they explore several sonic vistas while Neil Peart’s lyrics provide meditations on faith and perseverance in desperate times.
Those lyrical themes get a bit repetitive, and some of the songs just don’t measure up. Let’s dispense with those now — Bravest Face and Good News First never rise above the cliche titles, and Faithless is lifeless. More interesting but not quite must-downloads: Armor and Swords, Workin’ Them Angels (not a typical Rush song title, is it?) and Spindrift.
The Larger Bowl (A Pantoum) is a good case study of an intriguing concept that falls a little flat. A “pantoum” is a poetic form in which the second and fourth lines of one stanza become the first and third lines of the next, and Peart’s lyrics work well despite the rigid context. But the arrangement is a problem. Geddy Lee’s voice isn’t multi-tracked into oblivion on this album as it was on Vapor Trails, but relying on Lee to carry the drama with a few “who-oh-oh-ohhhhh”s just isn’t a good idea.
That leaves five standouts — the opener, the closer and three (?!) instrumentals.
– I’ve changed my tune on Far Cry. Once you get past the ponderous intro, it’s an effective opener, with Alex Lifeson conjuring ominous sounds out of his guitar and a chorus playing to Lee’s vocal strengths.
– We Hold On, one of the most straightforward songs on the CD, is a powerful cry for resilience and an appropriate finale.
– Hope is a 12-string acoustic solo by Lifeson that should make us all hope his next solo project is a 12-string acoustic solo album.
– The Main Monkey Business is a longish instrumental in the vein of La Villa Strangiato, passing through several playful themes, building and releasing intensity. Lifeson changes up guitar sounds with remarkable frequency throughout this CD, perhaps relieved that technological advances make it possible to play such things live without double-necked guitars and modified tripods. It’s distracting on some songs here, but it works well in an instrumental built to dazzle.
– The highlight is a tightly packed (2:16, only slightly longer than Hope) tune that completes a funny cycle. Primus once opened for Rush. South Park hired Primus to do the theme song. The South Park guys did a movie called Team America: World Police, in which they coined the term “malignant narcissism.” The South Park guys are also pals with Rush, who have created their most Primus-like song, Malignant Narcissism.
I’m often wrong in picking songs that become live standards, but this one really should be there. Lee provides a galloping bass line and trades mini-solos with Peart, just as he did on YYZ. Lifeson cedes the spotlight and adds textures over the frenetic rhythm section.
They’re playing too much of this album on the current tour. You could easily get up after Far Cry and skip four or five songs as long as you’re back in time for Natural Science. But in the CD era, anything with five good songs and a few more interesting experiments isn’t bad. That’s what we have here.
So the challenge for Rush is to come up with an album that matches the songwriting quality of Vapor Trails — even better, Presto or Counterparts — with the sonic quality of Snakes and Arrows.
The best news for all Rush fans is that they’re willing to give it a go.
I’ll have an epilogue summing up all X parts to help you make your own Rush boxed set … sometime soon. I’m overdue for sleep.