I don’t think Rush ever had such a clearly-defined demarcation point — as a band/creative entity — as their 1980 landmark release Permanent Waves. After the arduous process of recording their previous album, 1979’s Hemispheres, the band felt they were ready to move on from their signature longer pieces, filled with virtuoso musicianship, multiple stylistic movements, epic progressive-rock storytelling, and all the other elements which, while successfully rendered, seemed to have run their course.
While Rush always creatively unique unto themselves, never sacrificing their creative drive for the popinjays and mumbo-jumbos of the day, the musical scene around them was changing as well, influencing the types of music and songs they wanted to record, specifically incorporating elements of New Wave and Europop. This led them to a new ethos of sorts, to record shorter, more immediate songs that incorporated these new influences while still maintaining the level of sophistication, creativity, and musical innovation and exploration that had defined their sound for years.
And then there’s added bonus of perennial! FM! Radio! Hits!! Rush never chased mass commercial crossover success (but it don’t hurt either), but with Permanent Waves they were able to compose two songs that engendered significant radio airplay (and have continued to be stalwart Rush tracks at almost every live show). “The Spirit Of Radio” is probably their second most recognizable hit after “Tom Sawyer” (while it only rose to #51 in the US, the song remained a radio favorite for decades after), and from Alex Lifeson’s opening blast of radio static in the form of a scorchingly dexterous guitar riff, the song erupts with a winning combination of impeccable musicianship and melodic rock sensibilities. An ode to both the simple joys of your favorite road tunes as well as the soul-sucking commercial reality of the music industry, “The Spirit of Radio” takes flight and soars throughout its entire five-minute run-time, with throwbacks to Paul Simon, reggae, and New Wave rhythms along the way.
“Freewill”, the album’s other big radio hit, continues the “melodic hard rock meets prog virtuosity” baseline established by “The Spirit of Radio”. Drummer and primary lyricist Neil Peart’s Humanist anthem has one of Lifeson’s best guitar solo moments in the band’s discography, and Geddy Lee’s vocals keep a confident lock on Peart’s weighty lyrics. One could easily argue that his higher register on the final bridge is a bit over-the-top, but even then it’s still a minor flaw. The musicianship on this track is stunning, and it remains a band classic for good reason.
“Jacob’s Ladder” is an odd tune, and that’s not necessarily a criticism. At seven-and-a-half minutes in length, it has echoes of the band’s epic songwriting past, while still remaining very much of the time and tide of the earlier album tracks. It begins with the drums of battle march, ominous and foreboding as storm clouds prepare to clash in some epic conflict of sorts, sunlight beams bursting through the oppressive vapor layer, forming the natural phenomenon mentioned by the title. Or something. “Jacob’s Ladder” is much more of an evocative, abstract piece than the radio hits that preceded it. The epic battle is followed by swirling Moog lines that paint luminescent beams slicing through the storm, pausing the cacophony surrounding them and holding them in place. What was thunderous power and riffing turns to melodic wonder and illumination, to magnificent effect. Still, as much as I enjoy the song I think it aims high and doesn’t quite stick the landing. “Jacob’s Ladder” denouement is a somewhat lacking in comparison to its musical introduction, conflict, and resolution. Still, ’tis better to stumble while reaching for the stars, than to meander about atmospheric lower reaches.
“Entre Nous” was released by the band as a single and it failed to chart or, like its “radio hits” brethren, achieve any sort lasting radio airplay. It doesn’t reach the heights of either of those songs, but it makes a for a fascinating, heartfelt plea for understanding and empathy between like-minded souls. It exposes some fascinating musical juxtapositions between FM radio rock patterns, signature changes, acoustic flourishes, and more of those ephemeral synth lines, but the entire song doesn’t quite gel into a complete whole in my ears. The whole is less than the sum of its constituents, as it were.
“Different Strings” is a simply lovely ballad, that produces the opposite effect of “Entre Nous”. Everything about “Different Strings” is a thing of cohesive joy; from Peart’s heartfelt lyrics about acknowledging a relationship drifting apart, Hugh Syme’s exquisite piano work, Lifeson’s tasteful solo, Lee’s vocals and restrained yet effective bass lines, and the melodic sadness that roots the song. And yet it all melts together seemingly effortlessly, resulting in a track that probably should have been released as a single. “Different Strings” is one of the band’s least known album cuts, and that’s a shame. It deserves more attention.
Closing the album is perhaps the band’s last acknowledgement to their ‘epic’ past, the three-part suite that comprises “Natural Science”. A riffing of the “Between the Head and Hand Lies the Heart” sort as it pertains to human evolutionary, scientific, technological, and artistic endeavors, the track musical traverses from Man’s beginnings as tidal pool cells to his eventual trip through hyperspatial lanes into synthetic worlds of mechanized emptiness, all the way into resolution and understanding at its climax. A bit like Kubrick’s 2001 as a 9-minute power trio jam, as it were. The song is well produced and musically fascinating enough to warrant a positive response, and it does, but it lacks the grounded motivic elements that generally made their epic songs so memorable. You could argue that this element of harmonic recapitulation might prove antithetical to the song’s overall journey of NOT returning to the primordial ooze but rather evolving in a way that creates a respectful, balanced, solid-state harmony state of humanity triumphant, but musically it leaves the listener in a state of irresolution.
Permanent Waves triumphs as the herald of a new band, as Rush bursts forth into the 1980s reinvigorated and renewed. The album exemplifies this shift with shorter songs, tighter melodies, and a more polished production sound that hits that sweet spot for most rock between 1980 and 1982, coming after the factory line of disco but before that patented thin, processed, bottom-lacking 80s sound that would dominate an era. This Colossus strides both worlds of Rush: the shorter, more immediate songs of their future as well as the more complex, abstract pieces that categorized their past. Permanent Waves succeeds as one of their more memorable records, albeit one marred by a few flaws. “Entre Nous” isn’t as cohesively complete as it should be, and “Natural Science” is a fascinating musical journey that finishes feeling a bit unsatisfying. But then there are songs like “The Spirit Of Radio”, “Freewill”, the mostly intriguing “Jacob’s Ladder”, and the exquisite “Different Strings” that elevate Permanent Waves into the ‘Essential’ tier of Rush albums.