Much has been said, written, blogged, pontificated, praised, vilified, ignored, and cherished about Rush’s so-called “80’s period” or “keyboard era” or whatever you want to call their post-Moving Pictures, pre-Counterpoints releases. No matter how you view that period of the band’s career, most point to Rush’s 1982 album Signals as the line of demarcation between classic/hard/prog rock Rush and 80s/New Wave/synth-driven Rush.
You could probably make a very strong argument in favor of that assertion, but it’s not really all THAT significant. As a band, Rush was always in discovery mode, always evolving, adapting, incorporating, and growing without losing those singular elements that made the band unique: impeccable musicianship, Neil Peart’s inimitable and evocative lyricism, Geddy Lee’s and Alex Lifeson’s strong hooks and memorable riffs, and a sound and experience so much grander than the sum of its parts (and let’s face it, those are some mighty impeccable parts) that makes Rush, RUSH. So sure, go ahead and proclaim that Signals was the album where EVERYTHING CHANGED. And yet change had been part of the Rush experience since their 1974 debut album and has been steadily rolling onward since then.
But Signals was maybe a slightly bigger delta than Rush fans were used to, especially coming off the seminal, nay, landmark previous album, 1981’s Moving Pictures. To this day that record remains Rush’s biggest seller in North America, going quadruple platinum and sporting a ton of huge FM radio hits that remain classic rock staples to this day. Expectations for the follow-up were particularly high, but instead of delivering “Moving Pictures: Part Deux” the band recorded an album that delved further into new wave, art rock, reggae, even a bit of Europop, with a strong, some would say predominant focus on keyboards and synths as the foundation of their sound. Keyboards and synths were of course not new elements to Rush’s music, but never before had they been so strongly featured.
What stands out to me about Signals is that the sound and production is emblematic of that beautiful tonal sweet spot, where 80s music wasn’t relegated to a mass of electronic/gated drums, synth horns, thin guitars, and other over-utilized elements that dominated major studio album production from around 1984 through the rest of the decade (I don’t want to single out Hugh Padgham by name, of course, except I just did). Somewhere between the demise of disco and the rise of that slick, over-produced 80s sound, there was Rush adopting an atmospheric chilliness and incorporating it into their music, utilizing that distinctive Minimoog tone to underscore a “Dawn of the Computer Age” dehumanization, held in high relief against their fiercely humanist, strongly individualist spirit, lyrics, and overtones. It makes for a fascinating dichotomy, which in turn makes Signals such a compelling album.
And still the hard rock tropes all applied: strong riffs, chunky power chords, fist-pumping rhythms, all of them still part of the music. It’s impossible to listen to the driving uptempo kick of “The Analog Kid” and forget that this is the same band that skillfully roared through “La Villa Strangiato”, even if the song’s midsection slows down with a thick, moody keyboard overlay. The youthful, hopeful, almost rock-pastoral feel of “Analog Kid” makes a fine (if contrasting) companion piece with the more robotic-sounding “Digital Man”, another uptempo number which opens with some of Geddy’s most masterful bass work on the album. “Digital Man” deals with the dehumanized man, the Analog Kid’s potential future, all bits and data streams and information processing, alongside wistful yet sublimated yearnings for flights of fancy. There are echoes of The Police’s “Walking On The Moon” here, punctuated by Alex’s scorching mid-song solo as a sort of primal existential scream.
And let’s roll with that vibe (digital vs. analog, sublimation vs. celebration) and look at the album’s big singles. The most successful one at the time was “New World Man”, which remains Rush’s biggest US hit, going as high as #21 on the charts. It places the modern, late 20th Century man (digital) in context with and contrasted against the Old World and Third World men (analog): where he stands, what he should learn, and how to govern himself accordingly. The song itself is bouncy, infectious, catchy, and a total success for the band. “New World Man” features more of the band’s noodling with reggae rhythms (begun in Permanent Waves and continued into Moving Pictures), and probably their most successful noodling at that, as it swings to a groove all its own before erupting at the choruses with confident pop/new wave musicality. At 3:42, it’s also the shortest track on the record, but could be their single best pop single (while still remaining classically Rush).
So yeah, “New World Man” was the big hit, but album opener “Subdivisions” has remained the album’s lasting legacy. One of Rush’s all-time classic tunes (and rock radio staple), those opening keyboard chords are a powerful, unmistakable statement of purpose. The subject matter is straightforward enough, the role of the square peg in the face of mass conformity and defeatism. Geddy’s Moog solo is so emblematic of the song, strong and yearning while still minor key and haunting. It might be cliche to suggest that “Subdivisions” probably connected to more Rush fans on a personal level than any other in their catalog, and it is, but I would say that the song resonates more with the position of the band itself, iconoclasts in a musical landscape that rewards conformity, inertia, and stagnation. Your mileage may vary, of course.
I’ve always liked album closer “Countdown” quite a bit, a celebration of human achievement that was inspired by the band’s witnessing of a Cape Canaveral space shuttle launch in 1981. The incorporation of actual NASA radio chatter and audio seems to turn many off from the song, but it totally works for me on a primal-awesome geek-out level. It’s a good tune on its own as well. The keyboard work on this one is particularly strong and effective. On the other hand, I’m not particularly fond of “Chemistry”; it seems ill-fitting and patchwork, and not particularly interesting either in its music or lyrics. Album tracks like “The Weapon” (part of Peart’s ‘fear’ saga) and “Losing It” fill out the record nicely. The latter is a particularly winning song, highlighted by Ben Mink’s electronic violin work. I love the proggy, moody, expansive feel of the track, it’s odd time signatures, Geddy’s strong vocals, and mournful lyrics about those who never live their dreams, never enact their goals or reach their true potential. “For you the blind who once could see, the bell tolls for thee…” Great stuff.
At its release Signals received a lot of criticism for those who viewed it as a significant step down from “Moving Pictures”. While perhaps it’s not quite at that album’s level, Signals remains one of the band’s strongest releases and perhaps one of their most important albums, a declaration of principles that their biggest success was not going to be a safe album designed to deliverable a bunch of predictable, expected radio hits. The hits would come, and the album was very successful, but Signals was Rush building on top of their success on their own terms and with their own vision.