After the somewhat chaotic production of 1984’s Grace Under Pressure (which I suspect worked in the album’s favor, but that’s neither here nor there), Rush returned to the studio in 1985 for their followup Power Windows, a more confident-sounding and cohesive album than its predecessor (but not quite as good). Themes of power, its utilization, destructive energy, mass-market capitalization, and corruption of the spirit were brought to the forefront, a “concept” album in tone if not in narrative.
Power Windows is often looked on by fans as one of the pivotal moments (if not THE pivotal moment) during which keyboards and synths dominated the band’s sound. Certainly there’s no denying it; the album is simply drenched with them. Rush was never a band to lock down to an established paradigm; their sound and fury was ever changing and evolving. Some fans who revered albums like Hemispheres and A Farewell To Kings, with their epic side-length album cuts that reveled in intricate musical complexity and grandiose storytelling, found themselves turned off by the shorter, more “commercial” or contemporary sounding tracks on Power Windows.
In a way, you couldn’t blame them. Maybe. Rush in 1985 was, pardon the expression, a ‘far cry’ from where they were by the late 70s, even the early 80s. They were looking to expand their sound-stage and take advantage of the styles and technology of the day. But the band’s sound was still undeniably RUSH, as evident by the album opener (and lead-off single) “The Big Money”. An uptempo number, it integrates decorative keyboard lines with the sharp punctuation of Alex Lifeson’s guitar, the punch of Geddy Lee’s bass runs and drummer (and lyricist) Neil Peart’s alternating drum/electric drum/cowbell fills. It’s one of the band’s best known songs, and it still holds up, even if it does scream 80s!!! a bit more than most of their other hit singles from the era. The following track “Grand Designs” is again driven by keyboards, almost overrun by them during the chorus, but it swings with a ska-influenced rhythm that is undeniably catchy.
“Manhattan Project” is an odd song. The intro and opening seem a bit too conventional, almost a tad too “Mike + The Mechanics” for my taste (not a slam on that band, just not what I’m expecting from Rush). The song really kicks into gear during the chorus, but the verses leave me a bit cold. On the other hand, “Marathon” has always been a favorite. Everything from the catchiness of the melody, the musicianship from the band (especially Geddy’s trebly runs under and between verses), to the choral lift on the final verse, this is a great one. It’s an extremely polished and well- (some would say over-) produced track, but it serves the song extremely well.
“Territories” opens with African/Island rhythms from the band, a definite new sound integrated into their music, evolving out of the dalliances with reggae and ska that first made themselves noticeable back on 1980’s Permanent Waves and continued from that point on. The song contains some of Peart’s most direct and sometimes furious lyrics, a plea for universal tolerance and global unity: “Better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world, than the pride that divides when a colorful rag is unfurled.” Lifeson’s screaming guitar is used to great effect here, underscoring the song’s primal, pleading rage.
I really enjoy the poetic yearning of “Middletown Dreams” more than I enjoy the song. A spiritual successor to the 1982 classic “Subdivisions”, the lyrics are beautifully evocative, but the music feels flat and by-the-numbers to me. I find “Emotion Detector” to be similarly off-balanced, although with that track I’m not as fond of the lyrics while I’m more appreciative of the music. The album starts to feel a bit repetitive here, a sense of overall sameness between these two songs: extremely keyboard-dominated, low-key numbers that “explode” with Lifeson’s guitars during the choruses. I much prefer the darker, more ominous opening to “Mystic Rhythms”, the album’s closer. Highlighting a percussive, African style once again meshed with almost Oriental sounding strings from Alex’s guitar, the world feel of the song adds a musical layer of exotic intrigue to Peart’s lyrics about coming to logical terms with the supernatural and unexplainable.
Power Windows is another good record from the band, with the caveat being that it’s probably the band’s least timeless work since their 1974 debut album. Not even just the keyboard domination, electric drums, or thinner guitar tone, but the overall feel of the album is part and parcel of the mid 1980s. However, if you move past those particular production ornamentations, there is plenty of great material to be found: “Big Money”, “Marathon”, “Territories”, and “Mystic Rhythms” are easily the album standout tracks, but “Grand Designs” is a good deep cut and there are some interest parts of “Manhattan Project”. The album sags with “Middletown Dreams” and “Emotion Detector”, but those aren’t so much bad tracks as they are mostly filler. While I prefer the darker, chillier vibe of Grace Under Pressure, there is enough quality on Power Windows to make a strong argument against Rush 80s output being a “less deserving” musical period.