If all you can hear in this CD is a bunch of noise, well, you need to give it a few more listens, that’s all. Leapin’ lizards, Sandy, this is Rush, after all.
They almost caught me like this once before, when they shifted their sound in the mid-1980s. I didn’t (and don’t) especially care for the U2-meets-Duran Duran sound they adopted at that time, but did it mean they’d ’sold out’? Let’s not be silly, folks; Rush have never come within fifty miles of selling out. And whether their ’80s material represented my favorite sound or not (and believe me, I’m under no illusion that Rush spend their time in the studio trying to record stuff that specifically pleases _me_), that period included some of the finest _writing_ these guys have ever done. (Their _haircuts_, on the other hand . . . well, never mind.)
Now they’ve shifted again — this time after a six-year hiatus. Bassist Geddy Lee is doing a lot of chording way down there in the bottom end, and guitarist Alex Lifeson is filling about 65% of the CD with such a fuzzed-out wall of noise that it sounds like the music has been invaded by a county-sized swarm of angry killer bees. So Rush have become just another alternative band with a slightly-behind-the-trends ‘grunge’ sound — right?
Sure, kids. Now go back to your Tool CDs and let the grownups listen in peace. [EDIT: I'm not knocking Tool here, as one or two commentators on this review seem to think. I like Tool. I'm just poking fun at the notion that Rush are following a trend and have become just another band in some genre or another.]
Percussionist/lyricist Neil Peart’s lyrics have gotten steadily darker, more oblique, and more personal over the last two decades. Here, no doubt owing in large measure to his personal tragedies of 1997-98 (which we don’t need to relive here), he’s written some of his most sharp-edged material; on some of these lyrics you can actually cut yourself. I won’t say it’s the very best stuff he’s ever written (and I won’t say it’s not) — but if you’ve ever liked Peart’s lyrics, you should like these. A lot.
Almost every Rush album — certainly every one since _Permanent Waves_ — has a thematic unity that’s captured in the title (and Hugh Syme’s marvelous cover art). On _Signals_ it was success and failure in communication; on _Roll the Bones_ it was the taking of risks; on _Counterparts_ it was the mysteries of relationships (mostly romantic); and so forth. Here, surprise surprise, it’s transitoriness and evanescence against a backdrop of permanence. (‘The Stars Look Down’ may — I don’t actually know — have been inspired by a remark of Emerson’s about a time when he rushed out of a meeting very excited about something or other and looked up at the night sky: the stars, he said, seemed to be looking down at him and saying, ‘Why so hot, little man?’)
So what’s up with the music? Well, I’m afraid it’s hard to do that sort of thing justice in a verbal review; all I can say here is that you should keep listening. It really does make sense after you listen to it a few times (and the lyrics are _much_ better matched to the music than I thought on my own first pass through it). Yes, it takes several listens; can you name a Rush album that didn’t? Yes, Lee’s voice is sometimes hard to make out through the wall of industrial noise; what was the last Rush release we could listen to _without_ the lyric sheet open in front of us?
For thirty years these guys have been releasing albums, and for thirty years every one of them has been greeted by _somebody_ with ‘Well, that’s it; the Rush we knew and loved is dead and gone, and this clunker will clearly be their last recording.’ It ain’t so.
I think some listeners somehow expect Rush to sit aloof from all popular musical trends and hand down songs from Olympus or something. Those listeners are bound to be disappointed. These guys do listen to other people’s music, they do like some of the things they hear, and they do adapt other musical idioms to their own ends. They’ve done it for thirty years and they’re still doing it here. That doesn’t make them anybody’s camp followers.
It’s Rush. It’s good. It’s that simple.