Sunday, October 5, 2014

CD Odyssey Disc 670: Rush

I’ve got one hell of a busy Sunday ahead; so busy that I will actually…miss watching some football. This simply does not happen. Fortunately the beloved Miami Dolphins are on a bye week.

On to the album!

Disc 670 is…. Signals
Artist: Rush

Year of Release: 1982

What’s up with the Cover? The fire hydrant sends out a signal to the dog – get it? Or is it that when we see a dog and a fire hydrant we receive a signal that a certain thing is about to happen. This cover toys with the ideas of how we interpret signals and how those interpretations are instant, arbitrary and not always true. I like it!

How I Came To Know It:  I was just about to enter junior high when this album came out. It followed the huge success of “Moving Pictures” and so did very well. It seemed like everyone had it – my brother included. I used to tape songs off my brother’s record collection, which is how I got into “Signals.” The CD version I bought back in the late nineties when they re-mastered it.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 19 of Rush’s studio albums, which I believe is all of them. I like “Signals” less than I did when I was twelve, but it still has its moments. I put it around 13 – just ahead of their debut album (reviewed way back at Disc 184). Careful readers will see that this may bump around some other earlier Rush rankings. Hey – it’s a work in progress. Relax.

Rating:  3 stars

It was 1982 and so began Rush’s five year obsession with synthesizers and organs. It also began my love/hate relationship with this new direction. I still put “Hold Your Fire” as one of their great albums, but “Grace Under Pressure” is sadly lacking. Somewhere in the middle we find “Signals” alternatively infuriating and inspiring.

I’ll start with the good stuff, which includes some of the band’s better songwriting. “Signals” has Rush once again showing off their ability to come up with two or three different musical themes, then cramming them together into a single song. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It is what makes them the masters of progressive rock.

My favourite example of this on “Signals” is “The Analog Kid” which has a fast-paced bass line firing away, capturing a young boy’s excitement as he races through a hot August afternoon. Then the song shifts speeds from fast-paced thrill ride to a solemn, awe-inspiring anthem. It feels like you’ve run until you’re breathless and then lay down and just stared up at a blue sky through some green trees and let the beauty of the world soak into you.

Growing up, the two songs that appealed to me most were “Subdivisions” and “New World Man,” both of which speak to disconnects in the modern world. “Subdivisions” is the alienation felt by kids living in the suburbs. I grew up in a small town where there wasn’t really such a thing as the suburbs, but Neil Peart’s lyrics remind us that the real subdivisions are not geographic, they’re social:

“Subdivisions –
In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out.”

High school can be hard on someone trying to express individuality, and I did that a lot. I survived high school just fine in the end, but in Grade Eight the whole thing can feel pretty daunting, and this song gave me comfort – it was an anthem for those of us who wanted to do it our own way.

New World Man” is from the perspective of a young man heading out into the world, trying to make good choices. He is aware of his own power, but not always of the ramifications of using it. Coming out in the Cold War, this song also echoes the dangers of making bad decisions in a nuclear world.

Now the not so good things about this album – and that conversation must begin with the production decisions. The whole album has a fuzzy quality about it, like it was recorded in a tin drum. The band seems to be trying to create a wall of digital sound, but it just makes the whole record sounds distant and dull. No matter how loud you turn it up, you still feel like you can’t hear it properly. It comes seriously close to wrecking the record.

Also, while Peart delivers some great lyrics on “Signals” he also gets a bit too much free rein to explore his inner nerd. The result is songs like “Chemistry” and “Countdown”. “Chemistry” is literally about the chemical reactions between cells. Peart tries to connect this theme to human interaction, but the whole thing is a stretch. If you want this kind of Rush song, then I recommend “Natural Science” off of “Permanent Waves” instead.

Countdown” is about a space mission – likely the first launch of the space shuttle Columbia in 1981. It was a big deal when I was 11, but the idea hasn’t aged well and neither has the song.

Countdown” also has dialogue from the shuttle launch dubbed over the music which is annoying and distracting. It is another unfortunate production decision that made me convinced that I was going to give this album two measly stars.

But then “Signals surprised me with a song I’d never properly paid attention to before – “Losing It”. A quiet and introspective piece with a lot of organ as it tells the terrible tale of artists – a dancer, a writer – who are losing their ability to create:

“Some are born to move the world
To live their fantasies
But most of us just dream about
The things we’d like to be.

“Sadder still to watch it die
Than never to have known it
For you – the blind who once could see –
The bell tolls for thee…”

When I was a kid I skipped by this song without a care. As a man in his forties it speaks a lot more deeply. It is a brave song to write as well, because there is no way Peart could have done it without digging deep into his own personal demons.

For surprising me more than thirty years after I first heard it, I moved this album up several notches from where I thought it would be. It felt good to be wrong.

Best tracks:   Subdivisions, The Analog Kid, New World Man, Losing It

1 comment:

Gord Webster said...

Losing it has been one of my favorites on this one for a long time now. Underrated, and largely ignored. I didn't really grok the whole thing until years after I first heard it...