Moving Pictures


Mercury Records, 1981

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Sometimes you write a review because it’s new music that you’re excited about. Sometimes you write a review because it’s old music you just got excited about again, or because it feels underappreciated. Sometimes you write a review just to fill a gap. And sometimes you write a review strictly for the joy of it—an excuse to put some words together about an album that’s hardly underappreciated and doesn’t fill in a gap anywhere but within the pleasure centers of your own brain.

Spend a couple of hours with Rush’s iconic 1981 release Moving Pictures for no particular reason beyond I just kinda feel like it? Yes, please.

There is a tinge of sadness due to the timing, of course – I’m writing these words just a few weeks after the shocking news of Rush drummer/lyricist Neil Peart’s death following a very private battle with cancer—but the fact is I’d long since plucked Moving Pictures from the archives for a fresh listen or three. So…

Transitional albums are often awkward exercises, with the artist working out a new approach to their craft in full view, tinkering with innovations without being fully confident yet that they represent a path worth following. Which makes Rush’s eighth studio album Moving Pictures all the more remarkable in that it features a distinct evolution of a well-established sound, that emerges fully formed and brilliantly exploited from the word go. Up until this album, Peart, Geddy Lee (bass/vocals) and Alex Lifeson (guitars) had been a almost exclusively a guitar-bass-drums power trio; on Moving Pictures, bass maestro Lee went from tinkering with synthesizers to fully incorporating them into his musical vocabulary, changing the band’s sound forever.

As if to punctuate the change, leadoff cut “Tom Sawyer” delivers an explosion of dynamics from the very start, synths and guitars and a dozen different melodic ideas crammed into a tight 4:37 that emulates standard verse-chorus structure without adhering to it, evolving both lyrical and melodic phrases as the song progresses. While the lyric is largely impressionistic, its core idea—”No, his mind is not for rent / To any god or government”—neatly summarizes Peart’s libertarian/atheist philosophy. Two minutes in lies one of the great instrumental break / solos in the entire Rush catalog, as Peart and Lee weave an intricate, frenetic rhythmic foundation for guitarist Alex Lifeson’s tightly corkscrewing guitar solo, a bravura moment that just keeps accelerating until they barrel headlong into an even-bigger reprise of the opening bars. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Next up, “Red Barchetta” is a pure pleasure ride, a deceptively simple tune about taking your uncle’s vintage car out for a spin in the country. What makes it special is the way the propulsive, richly melodic music and Peart’s vivid, novelistic descriptions bring the experience to life, putting you in the car with the wind in your hair: “Well-weathered leather / Hot metal and oil / The scented country air / Sunlight on chrome / The blur of the landscape / Every nerve aware.”

The three virtuosos of Rush—each among the best on the planet on their primary instruments—never hesitated to feature instrumentals on their albums. But “YYZ”—named for the call letters for Toronto International Airport—is a standout among standouts, a jam-packed 4:25 sprint that features exceptionally elastic and nimble elements, veering left, then right, then repeatedly returning with neck-snapping precision to its head-banging “chorus.” (And if you’ve ever wondered if rock fans actually enjoy instrumentals, check out the love the crowd gives “YYZ” on the Rush In Rio DVD.)

In a catalog marked by excursions into fantasy and philosophy, “Limelight” is one of the most grounded songs the band ever delivered. Peart’s frank explanation of his misgivings about life inside the “gilded cage” / “fisheye lens” of rock stardom is lit up by an uncharacteristically simple and direct riff, a thousand-watt melodic spotlight that simply pins the listener in its glare. As Lifeson and Peart power along behind him, Lee delivers a sort of introvert’s manifesto: “Cast in this unlikely role / Ill-equipped to act / With insufficient tact / One must put up barriers / To keep oneself intact… I can’t pretend a stranger / Is a long-awaited friend.”

That’s four songs and 20 minutes of at-the-top-of-their-game Rush… and then you get three more.

“The Camera Eye” is among the trio’s most effective (and concise) forays into progressive rock, a seamless 10:59 suite featuring strong synth and guitar hooks animating an “urban reverie” lyric that’s downright poetic in places. They might have managed to tell the tale in fewer notes, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as evocative.

The allegorical “Witch Hunt” feels especially timely in 2020, not so much for its ubiquitous title as for its emphatic condemnation of bigotry and ignorance. Its dirge-like cadence and serious subject matter also add weight and substance to the album that isn’t necessarily present in some of the more anthemic tunes on side one. Finally, “Vital Signs” offers a guitar-centric closer featuring reggae elements complementing a churning main hook. The latter pair don’t deliver the same spark as the first five tracks, but still rank among the stronger deep cuts in Rush’s lengthy catalogue.

There’s much to love about Rush—their epic musicianship, their rich musical and lyrical imaginations, their endearingly self-deprecating sense of humor—and different fans have different favorites among their varied, decades-spanning back catalogue. Still, more so than is the case for many bands of their tenure and stature, with Rush, there seems to be a fairly wide consensus among fans in favor of Moving Pictures as the high-water mark for the band. Count me as a member of that club.

Rating: A

User Rating: A-


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