Aw, man, Professor, why did you have to go and die on us?
I still cannot get over how quietly and suddenly Neil Peart left us. Unbeknownst to most except the few in Rush’s inner circle, the great drummer, lyricist, and author had been dying of brain cancer for three and a half years, and when his death was announced on the afternoon of January 10, it was revealed he actually died three days earlier. For such a private gentleman, this was utterly perfect. He went out too soon, but at least he did so on his own terms.
As someone who has written upwards of 40,000 words about the band, I balked at writing an obit. First of all, far too many great writers wrote wonderful pieces in tribute to Peart, but most importantly, I couldn’t get any words out. I was just too sad. Instead, I listened to tons and tons of Rush as the year went on, including the 40th anniversary re-release of the band’s landmark 1980 album Permanent Waves.
Permanent Waves would turn out to be the Rush focal point of my 2020, as I took in it complexity and beauty with more attention to detail than I ever did before. I remember Peart describing it as the first “true” Rush album, the moment where the trio came into its own after six formative years and six very experimental albums. Personally, I view Permanent Waves as the moment where Neil Peart grew up. Since joining the band in 1974, Peart’s evolution as a lyricist was steady but all the while he dwelled on storytelling, most often in the science fiction and fantasy realm. Which was all well and good: after all, those years gave us “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, “2112”, “Xanadu”, and the crazy “Cygnus X-1” epics. Not to mention “Closer to the Heart”.
By the time the Hemispheres album was out of the way, the band felt like they had painted themselves into a corner. Hemispheres is still a beloved album by fans (including myself, it is one of their finest) but the writing and recording was fraught with tension. The fun had been sucked out of the whole process, so the band decided to reset, and that decision would pave the way towards some of their most commercially successful work.
The biggest change was that Peart, Geddy Lee, and Alex Lifeson realized that simplification could be liberating. Songs became streamlined, more hook-oriented yet still adventurous. Lee explored synthesizers more, and sang in a much more controlled tone. Lifeson was given more freedom to incorporate influences from outside progressive and heavy rock, namely new wave. And Peart, king of the monster drum fill, learned that just by pulling back on the reins a little, he could open up a lot more sonic space for himself and his buddies to explore. That minimalism would go on to help define his drumming style for the next 35 years.
If that wasn’t enough, Peart also stepped away from the fantasy gobbledegook in favour of a much more introspective approach. The difference is a little jarring: after so many epic tales, often approaching 20 minutes in length, Peart was writing an entire song about watching the sunrise. It takes skill to pull off a simple theme so eloquently, but Peart does so all over Permanent Waves: he explores the freedom of choice on “Freewill”, he muses about tidal pools on “Natural Science”, and delves into interpersonal relationships on the gorgeous songs “Entre Nous” and “Different Strings”.
Then there’s the mighty “The Spirit of Radio”, an all-time fan favourite that so cleverly tosses out some of the catchiest hooks and riffs the band has ever recorded. Underneath that irresistible, fell-good musical arrangement, though, lies some of the most cutting and cynical lyrics Peart ever wrote. The song starts off as seemingly an ode to the positive power of radio, but sneakily turns on itself and condemns what the medium had become, and in the case of present-day commercial radio, still is. “One likes to believe in the freedom of music,” Peart writes, “But glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity.” The delicious irony of it all is that to this day, commercial radio believes this song is nothing but a celebration of radio, dwelling on the first verse and ignoring the rest. Every year on “National Radio Day” my local classic rock radio station blasts this track in a shameless “look how great we are” moment, oblivious to the fact that they are being mercilessly lampooned. I’m sure Neil would get a laugh out of that.
Permanent Waves was always a bit of an outlier album for me, one I occasionally revisited over the last 35 years but one that took a long time to sink in, probably longer than any other Rush album, incredibly. once I let those deeper cuts sink in during the 2010s (it didn’t hurt that I saw them perform “Entre Nous”, “Natural Science”, and “Jacob’s Ladder” in person) the deeper the record wriggled into my subconscious. This wonderful new reissue does it all justice, and is appended by a great double LP of live tracks, including a rare performance of the “Cygnus” diptych, something they’d never do after 1980. The only thing I missed were detailed liner notes. Noted musicologist Rob Bowman had done great work on the Hemispheres and Farewell to Kings reissues, but this time around the only extra physical bonus is the expanded artwork by Hugh Syme. Nevertheless, this is a fitting tribute to an album that is often overlooked. It’s an extremely important one in the evolution of Rush, and especially when it comes to Neil Peart’s development as an artist. He would not have become the writer he turned out to be were it not for this bold creative leap. Don’t ever be afraid of change. The Professor never was.