I've always loved this record, but sometimes, it's only with the passing of a decade or two that we can see a work of art in its true place, with the perspective to see the wood for the trees - and on listening to it before composing this review I felt like I was listening to it for the first time.
And what a terrific recording, with a thoroughly modern, accessible sound and some lovely, memorable songs. I love the approach to making a record evident here - (mostly) simple songs, brisk drumming, punchy bass, crunchy guitar with a bit of chorus - and away we go. A fairly light production, with no progressive rock dramatics or atmospherics (with the exception of Witch Hunt perhaps), and consequently even after twenty years, it still sounds very fresh.
We get off to a slightly shaky start though, with Tom Sawyer, a somewhat jerky piece with a slightly pretentious lyric (but blame Pye Dubois). I've never been able to understand why it became a classic - it's not bad exactly, but a bit stop/start, a bit of a plodder, with a geeky, indulgent guitar solo played over a dorky bass pattern.
Things improve very quickly with the wonderful Red Barchetta, a song which in many ways embodies what this album is all about - compact, stylish, beautifully performed and elegant. Ditto Limelight, another piece in the same vein, like Red Barchetta featuring a beautifully musical guitar break from Lifeson and some gorgeous arpeggio chord work. Limelight however is marred by some of the most high-handed and precious lyrics I've ever come across - but let's not dwell on that.
Sandwiched between these two ditties is one of the absolute highpoints of Rush's career - the thrilling YYZ. A quirky, almost funky instrumental, full of twists and turns and packed full of tongue-in-cheek character. The guitar is all over the place, swerving from hither to thither like a very swervy thing indeed - and Alex's orgasmic, spiralling, descending guitar pattern giving way to a breaking wave of synthesiser splendour gives me goosebumps. Just brilliant, and absolutely cracking live as well - I nearly wet myself with excitement when they played this during the Signals tour.
Side Two, as we used to call it, kicks off with the splendid The Camera Eye, and it doesn't get much better than this, the most 3-dimensional Rush song of them all, featuring some tremendously lush, articulate guitar. The subtle sound effects give a real sense of being there - you can almost smell the English rain. An ambitious, cinematic piece this, but one which enjoys the same bright, elegant, open-hearted production values of the album as a whole.
I wish I could say the same for Witch Hunt, the album's only dud. Leaden and tedious, it is the antithesis of what this album is all about for me, and crawls along with all the elegance of a wide load on the slow lane of the M1.
We end on an uptempo note with Vital Signs - a perky, original little number with some lovely punchy guitar riffery and skanky chord work - a presage of things to come with Signals. Even if it did alienate a few Rush fans at the time, I've always liked Vital Signs. It's an odd little tune in some ways and it took me a long time to grow to love it, but it has some gorgeous chord changes (I adore the theme that resolves to a poignant trailing major seventh chord at the end of 'by internal coherence ..'). I think I detect a hint of a Stairway To Heaven influence in the Am-G-F outro (or whatever key it's in), which is at odds with this track's ska-flavoured sensibilities.
A lovely, vital, modern--sounding record then, with five stunning compositions and an elegant production. It's not perfect, but it has withstood the ravages of time beautifully. Top-notch.