20 Rush Albums in 20 Days: Permanent Waves
DAY NINE: Rush, Permanent Waves, running time 35:35, released January 1, 1980
It’s funny that Rush’s first album of the new decade was considered such a departure from the lengthy prog-rock reputation they’d earned to that point. Sure, Permanent Waves avoids the side-long track, but it has the same number of songs as 2112 and A Farewell to Kings (Hemispheres seems to be the one album that pushed the envelope with only four). Furthermore, the tour to support this album only included two of its shorter songs: “The Spirit of Radio” and “Freewill,” and then two longer pieces – ”Jacob’s Ladder” and “Natural Science” – that would have felt at home on either of the previous two LPs.
Still, there’s a refreshing change with this album, starting with Neil Peart’s more-relatable lyrics. We saw glimpses of this on previous albums (“Circumstances,” “Closer to the Heart”), but songs about radio, relationships and choosing one’s destiny are a far cry from the Cygnus X-1 epics. The positive messages translate well to a more upbeat, accessible music. Even “Jacob’s Ladder,” a longer piece that at first glance might be about something mysterious or supernatural, is about nothing more than sun breaking through the clouds. Go figure.
Simpler lyrics, but the music still astounds in its deceiving complexity. “The Spirit of Radio” may at its center be a four chord song with a blues riff, but try playing the opening 15 seconds in your garage band and get back to me. It ain’t easy. And even after thirty-four years, the drum part at 5:16 in “Jacob’s Ladder” continues to throw me. The guitar is in 13/8 time, and then Peart comes in with a beat that seems to be on its own time signature, yet lands on the one beat to keep it all together. Great stuff. The instrumental break of “Free Will” continues to astound audiences whenever Rush plays the song live, and “Natural Science” is another song with great time signature challenges.
I also have to mention my favorite Alex Lifeson lead guitar part, coming at 1:34 as he begins his solo in “Jacob’s Ladder.” Like David Gilmore, Lifeson is so good at creating a melody rather than just playing notes as fast as he can, and this part to me is absolutely perfect – a simple but effective motif that’s repeated three times. For me, he could have repeated it ten times.
As for live representation, only three of the six songs have made it into a regular rotation. Unless I missed it, “Jacob’s Ladder” hasn’t been played live since 1980, “Entre Nous” was only performed in 2007, and “Different Strings” has never been played live. This is a bit surprising to me, as Permanent Waves is among Rush’s strongest albums (if not the strongest). There simply isn’t a weak track on it.
The only potentially critical thing to say about the album is its production. It sounds a little boxy to me, with the use of the stereo spectrum underutilized (and poorly utilized during the guitar solo of “Free Will”), and lacking in a rich, full low end. If I had an engineer’s ears I could be more specific, but the album doesn’t sound as good as its successor, Moving Pictures.
Now, it’s important to note that at 35 minutes, Rush was able to avoid any filler on Permanent Waves, and I find myself asking the question: if I’ve been critical of many of Rush’s albums for being too long, is this album perhaps too short? Or, at the very least, should it be regarded less positively because it’s easier to compose 35 minutes of good material than 50 minutes of good material? After all, Presto easily has 35 minutes worth of excellent music. That album’s only weak point for me was that it has about two songs too many. So, should Presto be docked merely because the band was more prolific (or, more likely, that the band decided to accommodate the CD format vs. the album format)?
Good questions, I think. But for me, Permanent Waves is near perfection.
Tomorrow, I’ll be listening to…drum roll, please…number 18, Rush’s cover album, Feedback. I’ve never listened to this album before, so it’ll be the only review that I can say with certainty is without any preconceived notions.