Posted on February 9, 2010 -
I am often in the minority in my view of this, but I feel “Counterparts” is the Rush masterpiece of the ’90s, and may well be their best album. I’ve often heard of it referred to as Rush’s stab at alternative, which I really don’t agree with either– certainly, the band was influenced by a return of guitar-based rock music to the forefront of popular consciousness, and no doubt that assisted in this album fully embracing the guitar as main driver behind the music, but this is the direction the band had been heading for the past several albums– after the synth wash of “Grace Under Pressure” and “Power Windows”, “Hold Your Fire”, “Presto”, and “Roll the Bones” all walked the path of guitar based performance. What may have been more alternative influenced on this record was the focus on rock rhythms rather than the budding focus on funk and even hip hop rhythms that was so present on “Roll the Bones”.
As a result of this sonic shift, this album features some of the most inspired playing by guitarist Alex Lifeson in a long time– Geddy Lee’s bass, so often the most interesting component in Rush material on the past few albums, moved into a more traditional rock roll, freeing Lifeson to fill space better (mind you, Geddy Lee still has one of the most distinctive voices on the bass guitar in rock music, and is instantly recognizable). I also find that Lee’s singing is superlative, perhaps the best he’s done– his confidence as a vocalist allows him full control over his range and he fills each song with an investment of emotion I don’t feel we’d heard from him in the past. Lyrically, the album also continues the evolution of previous records– Neil Peart’s early albums were fantasy/science fiction influenced, often allegorical or parable. As time wore on, he brought his lyrics into a more modern society, into the current view. The past few Rush albums began to show a trend of lyrics with a much more personal bent, this album continues that trend– themes largely of love and relationship dominate the album, and even the more globally minded songs (“Nobody’s Hero”) have a personal slant to the lyrics.
To talk a bit about the songs themselves, there really is a wealth of stunning material here. The rolling, jangly opener, “Animate”, with its synth soaked bridge, stands out as one of the best cuts on the album, ditto for instrumental “Leave That Thing Alone”, which musically manages to portray a haunting, tense feel.
Beyond these two, the album seeks several directions, easily viewed in its thematic content– the two I mentioned previously fit in with a sort of struggle in relationships theme that’s all ofver the album, including the great, driven “Cut to the Chase” (with another stunning Lifeson guitar solo), “Alien Shore”, lyrically an explosion of metaphor, musically its funky in a way much of the material on the last album was, and one of the album’s singles, “Cold Fire”, a bitter love song with clever word play (how can you not love a love song with the line “she said, ‘this is not a love song’”) and a sufficiently affected vocal delivery by Lee.
There’s also definitely an undercurrent of sort Whitmanesque uplifting of the everyday people, the single “Nobody’s Hero”, reflecting on how the death of a loved one means everything to some but nothing to most, and the fairly obvious message of “Everyday Glory”, the latter a powerful, swelling song, again with a great vocal by Lee.
Finally, there’s a handful of experimental songs– Rush seeking new directions continuously stabs out in a number of ways– “Stick It Out”, with its overt guitar (and great bass playing in its bridge) doesn’t quite succeed as well as you’d hope, nor does the straightahead “Speed of Love”. The funkier songs on the record though, the unique “Between Sun & Moon” (with great lyrical word play and a monster riffing) churns and chugs and spins and explodes in its chorus, one of the great, overlooked Rush songs, and one of Peart’s cleverist moments as a lyricists, and the bizarre, funky, bass-driven “Double Agent”, with its strange spoken word vocal, as the peak of ’90s Rush experimentalism, it does far better than expected.
Overall, this is a great album, with a lot of varied, intriguing, and successful material. Experimentation abounds, and Rush does well with it. Highly recommended.