As the ’80s dawned, progressive rock was becoming an endangered species. Bands were either fading out or knuckling under to record company pressure to find a more commercial, radio-friendly version of their sound. Rush was one of the few who successfully navigated their way past this troublesome era with their musical mandate intact. The reason was twofold: firstly, they had always stood apart from the pack in following their own creative mandate, a path they justified via big album sales from 2112 on and a fanbase kept strong by frequent touring. The other reason was their musical approach embraced constant evolution – and Permanent Waves, their first album of the ’80s, showed this evolution was in tune with the times.
Permament Waves has a nice structure, with each side offering two straightforward songs and one expansive yet contained prog epic. Side one opens with a killer one-two punch: “The Spirit Of Radio” offered a heartfelt tribute to the relationship between a music fan and their radio station of choice, as well as wry commentary on the commercialism threatening to cheapen it, and “Free Will,” a paean to following one’s own self-determined path in a world full of people submitting to various dogmas. The former has a strong melody fueled by a fiery Alex Lifeson guitar riff and a surprise reggae bridge while the latter is a riff-driven cruiser with airy layers of synth and a killer instrumental break with some wild Lifeson soloing. “Jacob’s Ladder” closes the side with an elegantly-crafted epic that pays tribute to a specific weather phenomenon, starting with a “Bolero”-style progression that climaxes in a steamy guitar break before giving way to an ethereal synth hook that becomes the bedrock of its second section.
Side two begins with the lost Rush single, an overlooked gem called “Entre Nous”: the lyric has a personal, earthbound touch that represented Neil Peart’s future as a lyricist, paying tribute to how our differences as people leave room to learn from each other. It’s got a catchy arrangement with riffy verses that give way to an elegant chorus that waltzes along on rich acoustic guitar parts. “Different Strings” is another one of those ballads that allows the group to explore a change of pace, with silky piano parts taking the lead on a subtle, acoustic-texture melody for a melody that offers a moodier flipside to the optimism of “Entre Nous.” The album closer is “Natural Science,” an epic that was revived to great effect in concert in the band’s later years. It’s the most classically prog item here: the lyric reminds us technological drive must be balanced with respect for nature as the music deftly shifts through a variety of time signatures, an array of riffs and some cool echo-drenched synth effects.
The resulting album was the perfect way for Rush to enter the ’80s. There was enough of progressive ambition to its arrangements to please the fans but it also showed a band finding organic ways to make their style more accessible and draw in elements from other genres-of-the-moment like reggae and new wave. Peart’s lyrics were also shifting from the mythical and fantastic to more direct, earthbound narratives that anyone could relate to. Simply put, Permanent Waves showed that Rush understood that prog rock was more a state of mind than a set of rules – and this mindset helped them enjoy a successful new decade without any compromises.