Between 1974’s debut and 1978’s Hemispheres each new Rush record climbed to a greater level of complexity, intricacy and intellectualism. Yet, at some point, it becomes impossible to climb any higher. Hemispheres is the apex for Rush’s progressive rock era. It’s predecessor, 1980’s Permanent Waves is a major pivot point in Rush’s discography, a merger of their progressive sound with elements of new wave and synth rock.
Permanent Waves introduces a variety of new approaches. The lyrics veer from fantastical allegories of the previous records to more direct and accessible philosophical reflections. Geddy Lee drops the balls-out wails and opts for a melodious and approachable tone. At times, the songwriting is much more streamlined and conventional (though some songs have quite twisted structures). On the surface, Permanent Waves sounds like a “safe” record, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is a deceptively daring record that offers a plethora of original ideas.
The subtle genius of Permanent Waves is best captured by opening track, “The Spirit of the Radio.” Somehow, Rush manage to consolidate all the dimensions that make their progressive epics so impressive into a five minute radio-friendly song. “The Spirit of the Radio” laments the over-commercialization of the music industry and the devaluation of true artistry. Ironically, this critique of commercial radio was itself a commercial hit. It’s not hard to see why. Lee’s vocals are warm and sincere and the guitar lines are absurdly catchy. Yet, what on first listen seems like a direct pop-rock hit is actually quite the compositional achievement. The song doesn’t even have a true chorus. It offers four distinct but related progressions—ranging from a heartfelt and fiery anthem to slow, groovy reggae—that are weaved together through a series of sharp shifts in time-signature. It’s really one of the most intelligent and compelling pieces of pop-rock one will ever come across.
“Freewill” and “Entre Nous” are both excellent, straight-forward rock songs. Both songs have very conventional song structures that put the emphasis on Peart’s profound lyrics and Lee’s earnest vocal delivery. “Freewill” is a simple and direct anthem that challenges to take responsibility for our own destiny while “Entre Nous” is an eloquent reflection on the finitude of all human relationships. There’s also a rather weak ballad, “Different Strings”. The moment Lee croons “Who’s come to slay the dragon?” you know you’re in for a heavy dose of cheese. While “Different Strings” is stronger than previous ballads such as “Madrigal” and “Rivendell,” it is still plodding and saccharine. Still, even here, Lifeson offers a lush, jazzy guitar solo that goes a long way toward redeeming the song.
In contrast, “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Natural Science” are progressive goliaths. The former is a sonic depiction of a thunderstorm, a sort of prog-rock response to the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. It starts with a soft yet devious melody and a military drum beat. The soft pitter-patter melody is occasionally slashed by heavy riffs that cut through the composition like lightning bolts. The composition slowly builds up to evermore intense passages of doomy progressive metal, before fading into a soft and reflective synth passage that slowly swells into a final burst of prog-metal. In contrast to the fluidity of “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Natural Science” is a little disjointed, both musically and lyrically. It opens with a dreamy acoustic passage that contains a brilliant analogy between human societies and sea-life in tide pools. “All the busy little creatures/ Chasing out their destinies/ Living in their pools/ They soon forget about the sea.” From there it shoots off in several disparate directions: there’s some scatter-brained synth-rock and some Queen-inspired anthem rock. It’s all quite captivating, but it doesn’t really flow as a unified composition.
Permanent Waves is not the most cohesive or consistent of Rush’s works. There’s an undeniable dissymmetry between the giant prog rock tracks and the clean, straight forward pop-rock songs. Then there’s the sheer brilliance of “The Spirit of the Radio,” which fuses the best of both worlds. Still, any lack of overall cohesion is overshadowed by the sheer quality of the songs in and of themselves. Just as A Farewell of Kings offered an onslaught of new ideas that were then unified on Hemispheres, Permanent Waves is the breeding ground for countless new ideas that will be perfected on Moving Pictures.