Despite what some people may say about this album, it’s very much an inspired entry to Rush’s discography.
Despite Rush’s nearly 50 year career, 19 studio albums of original music, extensive touring schedules and spectacular live concerts, most people have a fairly narrow understanding of this massively influential band. “Tom Sawyer” is a universally lauded and utilized track. “Limelight” made Paul Rudd squeal in I Love You, Man. “Spirit of the Radio” has on opening riff recognizable by any rock ‘n’ roll fan. But there’s a vital piece of their history that most are missing out on.
Considering even the powers that be took their sweet time with inducting Rush into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s safe to assume the majority of the public has overlooked much of the band’s continuous output of material as well. Much of what came after Moving Pictures is generally left out of the conversation—and if not left out, sometimes reviled and ignored simply because Rush made it a point to mold their progressive sensibilities to reflect the evolution of popular music. While 1982’s Signals may have veered a bit too close to the synth-heavy cheese of the moment, Rush’s 1984 follow-up, Grace Under Pressure, found a masterful balance between prog rock and ‘80s pop that most people either hate or have never heard of. But, in giving the record another listen—now 32 years removed from its release—one comes to realize that Grace Under Pressure is nothing less than Rush’s stellar rebuttal to the decade that spawned its core sound.
Every element that drew fans to Rush is present on Grace Under Pressure. Geddy Lee’s mind-blowing and intricate basslines; Alex Lifeson’s understated but complimentarily technical guitarwork; Neil Peart’s incredible time-rending drumming; it’s all there. The band plays with time signature and song structure like the cherubim play harps. They tell stories with their instruments better than most novelists use words. Their lyrics are as on-the-nose as ever, but hey, no one’s perfect. And yet, because of the heavier incorporation of synthesizers, people seem to think this was a major black eye on Rush’s canon. Those people are mistaken.
Taking a slightly darker stance than usual, Rush’s lyrics this time around focused on the dire circumstances that force people to act with, you guessed it, grace under pressure (I told you, on-the-nose indeed). As the opening track, “Distant Early Warning,” can attest, it’s not a dark sounding record as the band confounds the metronome and shows their progressive tendencies are still in full force. But considering the track’s lyrics were born from the global tensions that arose after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Grace Under Pressure proved that Rush wasn’t about to fall in line with their previous love for the concept album, that this was to be a serious reflection on humanity and how we cope with catastrophe and pain.
“Afterimage,” for instance—almost an eerie precursor to the deaths, years later, of Peart’s daughter and wife only 10 months apart—is about the ghosts of loved ones left behind after sudden death. Despite the subject matter, this is the most ‘80s track on the album. Upbeat, stuffed with synth and heavily layered with guitar effects, it’s almost as if Rush’s plan was to juxtapose darkness with pop’s accessibility to coincide and subvert modern music. Considering the next track, “Red Sector A,” is based on Geddy Lee’s parents’ experiences as concentration camp survivors, Grace Under Pressure’s mission was never to match popular music’s trajectory, but to embrace the idea that music of all sorts can hold value and take stances even though most of the radio-ready tunes of the time were mostly vapid sing-alongs and Top 10 fodder.
Never willing to completely stray from their narrative roots, Rush included the first track in the “Fear” series on Grace Under Pressue with “The Enemy Within.” “Fear” grew into a four-part series that ended on 2002’s Vapor Trails and was centered on the idea that life is primarily motivated by fear. Quite the dark turn for Rush, but as the band has proven over their career through messages of hope and love, they have never given in to cynicism. Regardless, “The Enemy Within” is certainly par for the course on this record.
“Kid Gloves” may be the biggest point of contention on the album. While it is one of the most technically interesting tracks in terms of composition, it also features some of the lousiest lyrics. Rush’s lyrical acumen has to be taken with a grain of salt. Think of it in terms of Newton’s third law: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Many of Rush’s songs feature examples of brilliant songcraft with lyrics that suffer from a lack of subtlety and rhythm. Most of the time this unfortunate fact can be overlooked because the music and melody is just so damn good. With “Kid Gloves” however, it’s difficult to appreciate the intricacies of the song because the lyrics are just plain silly. Geddy Lee’s high and mighty register can’t even make them work. “Handle with kid gloves/ Handle with kid gloves/ Then you learn the lessons/ Taught in school won’t be enough/ Put on your kid gloves/ Put on your kid gloves/ Then you learn the lesson/ That it’s cool to be so tough.” If you’ve got the power to ignore such things as weak lyrics, “Kid Gloves” is the musical crowning achievement on Grace Under Pressure, but if not, this dynamic tune may be lost on you.
Despite what some people may say about this album, it’s very much an inspired entry to Rush’s discography. It may not be their greatest work, but considering the level of bravery it took to step into a style that risks the validity of their musical prowess, Grace Under Pressure may have been their most progressive album to date. If prog rock’s mission is to imbue artistry and credibility into rock ‘n’ roll through experimentation, this album is the quintessential example of that definition. This overlooked, unappreciated gem merits another spin. And since Rush has given us nearly 50 years of excellence, it’s only fair to attempt to understand how good Grace Under Pressure actually is, and how it deserves to be in the same conversation as Fly by Night, Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures.