If 2112 is the album that proved Rush could have a career, Moving Pictures is the album that ensured they would stay in the business on a long-term basis. A lot of bands get lazy or lose focus once they’ve comfortably established their audience but this was never the case for Rush. They took advantage of their commercial cachet to further their sound while simultaneously refining it to make their adventurous nature more accessible – and Moving Pictures represents a magical summit where their interests and development synced up perfectly with the interests of the mainstream rock audience, making it their greatest hit and their greatest album all at once.
Side one is the finest single side of material Rush ever recorded. It bounds out of the gate with atmospheric instant classic “Tom Sawyer,” a portrait of a self-styled individual whose characteristics double as a portrait of drummer/co-lyricist Peart himself. It’s distinguished by an almost soul-style backbeat and catchy synth hook that bassist/vocalist/keyboardist Geddy Lee once used as a test pattern for setting up his synths. “Red Barchetta” follows, another rebel-themed tale set in a future where cars have been outlawed. It shows how much Rush had streamlined their sound, delivering a side’s worth of tempo changes and riffs in just over six minutes. It’s a great showcase for guitarist Alex Lifeson, who does everything from delicate rhythmic shadings to fret-scorching solos. Everyone gets some soloing in on “YYZ,” a thrilling instrumental inspired by a bit of Canadian airport morse code in which every player displays their chops and telepathic communication simultaneously. The side ends in grand style with “Limelight,” Peart’s personalized yet relatable musings about an artist developing coping strategies for success. It’s powered by one of Lifeson’s most recognizable riffs and also boasts one of his loveliest solos on the tag.
After side one has won the listener over, side two stretches out into more challenging territory. “The Camera Eye” would be Rush’s final epic for a while. The lyrics offer personalized portraits of street life in London and New York, set to a fascinating mixture of proggy jamming and hooky verse melodies that free-flow into each other. It’s one of those epics that’s almost impossible to assimilate in the mind: the sudden twists of the arrangement always manage to take one by surprise. “The Witch Hunt” was the debut of the final part of trilogy called “Fear” (intriguingly, they released the three parts in reverse!). It’s a slow-burner that utilizes tribal percussion and a Sabbath-esque riff from Lifeson as the backdrop for a portrait of the ugliness of mob justice. Things end on a forward-thinking, hopeful note with “Vital Signs,” in which Peart harnesses a string of techno-jargon phrases to portray the relentless need of the ambitious to move forward. The music deploys sequenced synths, chugging guitar riffs and a taut interpretation of reggae rhythms to create a multi-dimensional band anthem.
Simply put, you can’t understand Rush without absorbing this album. Moving Pictures synthesizes everything the band learned as musicians and songwriters up to this point, wrapping it all up in a package that was commercial enough to produce hit singles but challenging enough to incorporate complex arrangements and multiple genres. Always restless, Rush would soon abandon the comfort zone they perfected here and spend the rest of the decade trying to reinvent themselves on albums that would sometimes divide the fanbase. Luckily, Moving Pictures provided a sturdy foundation for those experiments and it remains a timeless listen.