Drag the Dream Into Existence: Reassessing Rush’s Masterpiece
Moving Pictures is, without any question, not only Rush’s masterpiece, but one of those rare albums that epitomizes an era. It's a template of sorts for the way rock albums were made in the early '80s.
Every band, if they are lucky, is able to create a definitive work -- a document that embodies their unique qualities. Most great bands, at some point in their career, successfully produce an enduring statement. Some artists, like The Beatles or Pink Floyd, are able to capture -- or create -- the Zeitgeist on more than one occasion On the other hand; there are plenty of worthwhile and beloved bands who have never quite been capable of distilling the necessary ingredients of a classic recording. Finally, there are those almost unfathomable works that only a handful of bands can claim credit for. These exceptional albums are wholly original yet fully accessible and remain influential and imitated long after their release.
Moving Pictures is, without any question, not only Rush’s masterpiece, but one of those rare albums that epitomizes an era. It represents both a culmination and a progression: the peak of the band’s development as well as the blueprint for Rush’s subsequent work. More, it is a template of sorts for the way rock albums were made in the early ‘80s.
Rush evinced growth and improvement (musically, lyrically, and compositionally) with each successive album, ending the ‘70s with two efforts that functioned as touchstones and points of transition. Hemispheres is the pinnacle of that decade’s prog-rock formula, a convincing balance of ambition and achievement. "Cygnus X-1, Book Two" is their most successful side-long anthem; "The Trees" is a worthy follow-up to the radio-friendly "Closer to the Heart" and "La Villa Strangiato" is a stunning display of virtuosity, harnessing Rush’s musical skills, quirky humor and chemistry.
The carefully crafted sonic landscapes of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres are entirely suitable for the material, even if the songs and subject matter now seem more than a little calculated and self-conscious. It was apparent to the band, then, and seems inevitable, with the benefit of hindsight, that Rush had gone pretty well as far as they could (and should) go on Hemispheres. In this regard, it represents a culmination of a certain sound and type of record that Rush spent five studio albums working toward. One can clearly detect elements, up through Hemispheres, of each preceding album: the guitar solo on "Working Man" led to "By-Tor and the Snow Dog", which led to "The Necromancer" and "The Fountain of Lamneth", and then "2112", and in turn "Xanadu" and "Cygnus X-1, Book One", and finally "Cygnus X-1, Book Two" which connected all the dots.
Permanent Waves, their first album in the new decade, signifies a tremendous stylistic shift and showcases a refined sound. It was, according to the band, a relatively painless and pleasurable record to make, certainly in comparison with Hemispheres. The arrangements are typically complex ("Free Will", for instance, employs 13/4 time), yet the songs sound organic, unforced, inevitable. There is also a palpable sense of confidence infusing practically every note. Certainly this can be attributed to the persistent progress the band had made, both artistically and commercially. But more, there is increased evidence that Rush was increasingly in tune with the sounds and trends playing out all around them. "The Spirit of Radio", in addition to the novel, and remarkable approximation of reggae rhythms, also suggests Lifeson was aware (if not necessarily influenced by) the FM-friendly shredding of Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young, among others. If Rush had existed, regardless of their actual intent, somewhere on the aesthetic continuum between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision, they were now using those elements in the service of shorter, snappier songs that seem fully formed and not stitched together (however inventively). Permanent Waves is, on multiple levels, an unblinking stride toward the future, while it effectively shuts the door on the ‘70s.
Moving Pictures is the first (and, most fans would concede, the last) time the band produced a record that fulfills not only the band’s considerable purpose and potential, but stands on its own as the consummate Rush album, and one of the great rock albums. There is not a second of wasted or ill-spent space to be found: each moment contributes to the individual songs which add up to an ideally programmed and cohesive statement. It is impossible to imagine an alternate running order; it flows but does not ebb and never builds to a climax because the entire album functions as a continuous epiphany.
Considering other albums that would make the short list for all-time status, it is difficult to isolate ones that don’t have a weak link or a song that, no matter its merit, sounds slightly out of place. For an example of the former, even The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper has some fluff ("Lovely Rita") and the almost-immaculate Abbey Road has the love-it-or-hate-it "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer" and the (almost) universally reviled "Octopus’s Garden". For an example of the latter, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is quite difficult to quibble with on any level, but "Money" has always seemed like the song that could -- or should -- have been released as a single. There are probably many other excellent examples, just as there likely more than a few rock music aficionados who would insist there is no such thing as perfection, much less a perfect album. Finally, as previously discussed, perfection and how to define it is, at best, a dicey and ultimately futile endeavor. Put another way: who cares? Do we need to debate the parameters of a perfect album or, worse still, which albums are "more perfect" than others? Ultimately, all that matters is why the music works and why it warrants consideration.
One of the few words more loaded and problematic than perfect is timeless. Moving Pictures definitely sounds like it was made in the early ‘80s (the opening seconds of "Tom Sawyer" practically scream "meet the new boss!" and the new boss, circa 1981, was a synthesizer), but it manages to sound unsullied and exhilarating thirty years later. And not for nothing does it represent the first time Rush’s music was fully accessible. For instance, there is no getting around the fact that Geddy Lee’s vocals are…more restrained. Throughout Moving Pictures his upper register (lovingly or loathingly referred to as his "shriek") is conspicuously not a factor in the equation. Coincidentally, or not, it is the songs on this album that even professed haters of the band can tolerate and acknowledge.
For the millions of converted, Moving Pictures is sui generis; one of the pivotal components belonging on any Mount Rushmore of modern rock. Why? Is it the fact that, despite a very solid second half, the first four songs comprise one of the ultimate side ones (remember those?) in all of popular music? Is it the way these songs were, arguably, the first by Rush you could imagine listening to in your car, during the day, with other people present? Is it because this was the first time everything connected, from the music and lyrics to the cover art to the almost unbelievable fact that several of the songs could (and did) receive significant radio play? Is it because, at long last, after making so many albums -- no matter how unique and convincing -- Moving Pictures indicates the first time there was no discernible influence of other bands? All of these questions can unequivocally be answered in the affirmative. After Moving Pictures Rush was, finally, a band that other bands would begin to emulate and envy. And three full decades after its release, the songs themselves make the strongest case for their significance.