Permanent Waves
(Mercury 534 630)

In the late-eighties I was an obsessed Rush-nerd, proud owner of all their albums and ever-ready defender of their honor as a thinking-man's metal-prog band.

Or should I say thinking-adolescent's metal-prog band? Because, perhaps inevitably, I went to college, discovered that there were other kinds of music, (music played with certain amounts of grit and soul, music played with interesting, pretty, and affecting melodies), and soon turned my back on my old heroes.

But now, thanks to ears jaded by "alternative" radio, a more forgiving attitude, a pinch of sentimentality, and a newly-remastered Rush catalog, I'm rediscovering them. And liking (some) of what I hear.

Listening again to Permanent Waves, the first mega-popular Rush album and one of the first albums released in the eighties (on January 1, 1980, to be exact), I'm struck by how surprising and likely anger-inducing this must have been to the band's die-hard fans at the time. Coming in the wake of the magnum metal opus 2112 the fantastical sci-fi prog-fest A Farewell to Kings, and Hemispheres, Permanent Waves is a relatively tight album more concerned with songwriting than with mini rock operas.(Of course, Neil Peart's presence always meant that the band was ultimately most concerned with chops.)

But if I were some devil-horn-throwing, tight-black-tee-shirt wearing, greasy-haired obsessive Rush fan in 1980 (rather than the one I was in 1989), I would have felt utterly ambushed and even betrayed by this change in direction, especially if I preferred the bombastic metal of "Cygnus X-1" over the folkish feel of "Closer to the Heart." People rarely credit Rush with reinventing themselves, but they did so for the eighties in what sounds like effortless fashion, while improving their songwriting and craft greatly.

In fact, while the next year's Moving Pictures is usually the de facto pick as the best Rush album, I'm starting to lean toward this less-noticed gem as the actual best of the bunch. It's the one I most want to listen to, at least.

Why is it good? It was a bold and brave step for the band, though it could also be construed as a blatant attempt to stay marketable in a more pop-driven culture, where electronic sounds were becoming more and more the norm.

Whichever, the album doesn't sound calculated – well, OK, Rush always sounds calculated, but here it's not in a "We better get commercial, and quick!" way. Permanent Waves sounds damn fresh twenty years on; the production isn't dated at all. It could have been made in 1980 or 2080, or anywhere in between.

And Peart still has the most glistening-sounding drum set I've ever heard. But most important, there's some good pop songcraft here, something the band had only flirted with in the past. "The Spirit of Radio" kicks things off, and damn, what a fine way to open an album! If you've written the best song you will ever write, you may as well open your album with it.

The playing is as tight as ever, there are good hooks to be found, Geddy Lee's voice isn't too grating (his harsh high end noticeably diminished as time wore on), and the band actually sounds like it's having fun.

And the lyrics are good, too! Peart is not nearly the profound lyricist he thinks he is; as with his drumming, he gets far too concerned with tricky stylings (in many cases too much sub-high school poetry class wordplay) than with actual substance. But here he's on the money, and while tackling that cheesiest of rocker subjects, "the power of music," at that.

These are good lines: "All this machinery making modern music/Can still be open hearted, not so coldly charted/It's really just a question of your honesty/One likes to believe in the freedom of music/But glittering prizes and endless compromises/Shatter the illusion of integrity."

There! I quoted Rush! What a hideous cliché! And it felt good!

And even the potentially awful decision to parody "The Sounds of Silence," over a reggaeified beat manages to work as both a playful, referential nudge and a huge stadium-crowd-pleaser. I wish the band had worked harder at songs like this rather than disappearing up their own asses so often.

Well, now that far too much space has been afforded to the one song anyone reading this review is likely to be familiar with, the rest of the album should probably be assessed. It's mostly good, too. "Freewill" has managed to continue to get its fair share of classic rock time. No surprise, either; it's one of the best of Rush's more straightforward rock songs.

Straightforward being a relative term, of course, considering "Freewill" has more time changes than most songs have chord changes. But credit the boys for finally figuring out how to write a complex song without making it sound terribly complex and ultimately turgid.

This track rocks me just fine, despite one of Geddy's last, and most, ear-shattering shrieking bits (after the extended instrumental section), and the ultra-embarrassing lyric "They've been dealt a losing hand …/They weren't born in Lotus-Land." Ugh. I can imagine the conversation: "Geddy, sing this part like you mean it." "OK, Neil!" shrieks Geddy.

Um, back to earth now. What else is on here? Oh yes, "Jacob's Ladder," which hearkens back to the more pretentious, sci-fi nerd side of Rush, but manages to be musically interesting, at least until things slow down appreciably and Geddy starts experimenting with synth sounds about five minutes in.

Oh wait, I haven't mentioned Alex Lifeson! Alex has tremendous chops but is plays with about as little soul as any guitarist I've heard. He somehow manages not to be boring on this album, though.

The second half of Waves includes "Different Strings," which is vaguely pretty (unusual for this band), but doesn't really go anywhere, and "Natural Science," which I used to adore for reasons I cannot now fathom. It's nine minutes and broken into three parts; maybe that had something to do with it.

The surprising track on the album is "Entre Nous," an unusually warm-sounding and catchy song that the band probably considered filler. If there is a "lost Rush classic," this is certainly it. Rush should have stuck to pop.

Of course, they ended up veering away from what worked, and beginning with Grace Under Pressure their music became increasingly sterile and soulless, as (surprise) fewer and fewer people bought their albums. But those are reviews for other days.

Kudos to Mercury for the digital remastering and repackaging; hearing the songs freshened up, and considerably more live-sounding, makes plumbing these depths of my past a pleasure. Some liner notes and more embarrassing late-seventies pictures of the band would have been nice, however.

No bonus tracks here either, although I really don't think such things exist in the Rush world. Not much left behind at those sessions, methinks. And that is probably for the best.

Review by HIP