The highest compliment you can give Rush’s 1987 release Hold Your Fire is that, despite the further descent into/evolution towards 80s proggy-synth pop, the music still sounds quintessentially Lee/Lifeson/Peart. While the tableau onto which the band expressed their creative talents is a radical shift from the hard-hitting rock of the mid 70s, the epic discovery mode of the late 70s, or even mining the fertile analog/digital sonic mindscape of the early 80s, the resulting late 80s pop sheen remains easily identifiable as the product of a band perpetually in creative motion.
Hold Your Fire is also often listed as one of the band’s “weaker” albums by fans, held up as the “nadir” of Rush’s 80s synth-driven excesses. It certainly wasn’t a big commercial success; while it did go Gold in the US and spouted two hit US Mainstream Rock Tracks (“Force Ten” and “Time Stand Still”, both of which hit #3), it was the first Rush album since Hemispheres in 1978 to not break the “top ten” Billboard 200, as well as being the first Rush album not to go Platinum since 1975’s Caress of Steel. A commercial rebuke of sorts (although far from a disaster), but given an expanse of over two-and-a-half decades since the album’s release, one can take a long view appraisal of the album in light of Rush’s extensive catalog, creative dynamics, iconoclastic self-assurance, etc. etc.
And yet I’m still not much of a fan.
I’ll get the big two out-of-the-way, and state that I do enjoy the album’s Hit Singles. “Force Ten” has a sense of drive and urgency wrapped around a strong meditative core. I love the feel of the song, fluid and nimble in its infectious current. “Time Stand Still” probably ranks as one of the band’s best pure pop singles, shimmering and melodic and catchy without measure (the inclusion of Aimee Mann’s background vocals over the chorus underscores the song’s mass appeal beyond the core faithful).
Both songs compromise the opening two album tracks. After that it’s a decisively hit-or-miss affair… or as it turns out, often a hit-and-miss affair. I find the whole not entirely bigger than the sum of its parts; often I’ll find the music pleasing whereas the lyrics seem trite, or vice versa. Sometimes the song is perfectly pleasant and agreeable but ultimately forgettable, and reacting to art with a resounding “meh” is probably more damning to the artist than a verdict of absolute revulsion.
That’s probably the biggest weakness with Hold Your Fire — while it does hit some high marks, overall it simply doesn’t generate much response from the listener. A song like “Open Secrets” is musically intriguing but not essential, whereas “Second Nature” has some fascinating lyrics that are unfortunately drenched with 80s musical banality. “Prime Mover” hits an agreeable spot of lyrics and music that provides for a notable song, as does the uptempo exploration of “Lock and Key”, but they never really muster pass the level of “fine” or “decent”. There’s nothing therein compelling me to return, except to look at the album’s track list and think to myself, “Oh yeah, that’s an OK tune” or “That one ain’t bad”…
It feels like the songs could almost be great, if not for some deficiency. “Mission” has a rising, anthemic quality that I very much enjoy, but it’s entirely rooted in a flattened album aesthetic that feels less musically assertive than it should. A classic example of a piece requiring a little less think and a lot more feel (as an aside, a common critique leveled at Rush is that they are only a “Thinking Man’s Band, Devoid of Feeling or Emotion”, a critique I would categorically deny any day of the week and twice on Simchas Torah). This is rectified by “Turn The Page”, arguably the album’s best track, a superior tune that rises above its limitations (mostly the aforementioned flat album aesthetic) into an undeniably strong track. If you find yourself doing some cherry-picking throughout the band’s “less acclaimed” LPs, this is definitely one to extract from the pile.
I won’t say much about “Tai Shan”, except that I appreciate its creative ambitions and diversity. Meanwhile, Geddy Lee is on record as to admitting the song is an “error”. I’ll just say that, while not a notably successful endeavor, it’s more interesting to me than, say, “Open Secrets”, “Second Nature”, or “Mission” in the sense that it’s at least trying to shake things up a bit. You can’t say the same for album closer “High Water”, a well-meaning but ultimately lifeless ending to an album that could easily (if a bit unfairly) be described as “well-meaning but ultimately lifeless”.
Hold Your Fire has its moments as a Rush album, but ultimately it breeds a little bit of muzzled praised and a fair host of indifference. Come for the singles and “Turn The Page”, while cherry-picking the rest at your leisure.