As much as I love embarking upon weird, obtuse songs and artists in this One Random Single challenge, there’s also a distinct pleasure I get with covering the work from musicians I already know and love. Rush was introduced to me by my uncle at a pretty young age, and I’ve always been a bit of a fan of their work. “Tom Sawyer” was, of course, the song I was most familiar with, but I’ve grown to know and love a variety of their other songs over the years. Geddy Lee’s unusual, contemplative vocal delivery was what piqued my interest at the start, but with the passing of time I’ve come to appreciate Neil Peart’s contributions to the band’s vibrant body of work. I missed out on seeing them in concert when I was nine years old, and I would be curious to see the alternative universe that existed from after that night, had I ended up attending.
Rush are a three-piece Canadian rock band that have kept their same famous lineup for over forty years: bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and percussionist/primary lyricist Neil Peart. The style of the band has evolved numerous times through the years, but they are probably most well-known for their progressive rock stylings, later jazzed up with heavy synthesizer usage in the 80s. Their discography is expansive and ever-growing, with their latest album having been released in 2012. Most would consider the peak of their artistic and commercial success to come between 1976-1981, with the albums 2112, A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves, and Moving Pictures. I haven’t yet listened to all of their albums but I firmly hold the opinion that the band has stayed consistently awesome! At least stylistically.
Rush differed greatly from a lot of other commercially successful rock bands in the 70s and 80s, such as The Rolling Stones and Van Halen, in that they never really gave into the need to amp up their sex appeal to be more appealing to the masses. They have been known primarily for their musicianship and unparalleled mastery across numerous styles and instruments throughout basically their whole career. This factor, coupled with the emphasis on themes of fantasy and philosophy that the band has become synonymous for, have (perhaps unfairly) pigeon-holed the group into the subsection of nerd culture. Listening to Rush was somehow an activity done by audiophiles who felt their tastes were more refined than those who listened to, say, REO Speedwagon or Pat Benetar. It implied a more seasoned taste, one that rejected simplistic pop music and opted toward complex instrumentation and mature lyrics.
With that being said, though, by 1982 Rush had been moving on a more radio-friendly direction in their music since their 1980 album Permanent Waves. Veering away from lengthy, conceptual pieces and deciding on more verse-chorus-verse structures, replete with synthesizers and other electronic instruments, this change in style also boosted their record sales significantly and gave them their best-selling 1981 album Moving Pictures. Their follow-up album, Signals would eventually become their very first number-one album, topping the Canadian charts. “Subdivisions” was the lead single and introduced a much heavier involvement with synths than Moving Pictures, as well as a further move away from their original rock sound. It was a top ten US Rock hit and has since become a staple at the band’s live shows.
Tying in with the group’s place in nerd culture, this song pays a bit of an homage to this exact phenomenon. In particular, this song is a condemnation of the life in suburbia which lives its days “in geometric order”, where “opinions all provided / The future pre-decided / Detached and subdivided / In the mass production zone”. This seems to be a specific call-out for young people who feel stuck in these predetermined borders, needing to escape the dull conformity of their upbringing but possibly unsure of how to do so. The lyrics also tell us of their inability to fit in with the “cool kids” due to this rejection of ideals: “Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone… / Conform or be cast out”. These lyrics are perhaps a bit too on-the-nose to be as fully effective as they could be, but it does successfully tap into that very specific melding of confusion and desire that creative youths often find themselves at odds with. While “(Subdivisions) in high school halls / (Subdivisions) in shopping malls / Be cool or be cast out” is a clumsy line, other lines like “The suburbs have no charms to soothe / The restless dreams of youth” tend to make up for them.
I could imagine many long-time fans of Rush being initially turned off by the over-reliance of synthesizers in this song (and possibly the rest of the album, though I haven’t heard the whole thing), but I honestly think it’s one of the strongest qualities of the whole track. The synths are huge, maybe even huger than any of the other band’s contributions, and I could imagine this being amazing to hear in a large, full stadium. The synth solo after the first chorus does fare a bit weak, but I think the driving riff of the song is particularly effective in capturing the simple contemplations of a young person coming of age. But as I said before, Rush do a great job of making their songs feel pretty epic, even if this is only surface-level as is the case with “Subdivisions”. It’s nice that the band would go the extra mile to create a bit of an homage to their core audience, but it doesn’t quite hold a candle to any other track on Moving Pictures. In general, I say it’s well worth a listen, but maybe more for those who aren’t quite as picky about lyrical complexity as I am.