With Presto, Rush began to emerge from its synth-encased mid-1980s period, bringing along some of the pop smarts of Signals but pushing the guitar forward again in the mix.
Credit producer Rupert Hines, whose tentative steps toward rebalancing the group’s sound are nicely underscored on this new Audio Fidelity reissue. Each song focuses on what had been a badly missed Alex Lifeson, even as Geddy Lee’s work on the keys — though still a prominent part of the project — blessedly recede.
As such, the assumption would be that the album’s more familiar upbeat numbers like “Superconductor” and “Show Don’t Tell” tell the story of Presto. Instead, there’s more often a deeply reserved feel, a jazzy feel, a quiet feel. That’s best characterized by contemplative moments like “The Pass” (in which Neil Peart takes on teen suicide), “Red Tide” (a devastating exploration of the AIDS crisis) and “Available Light” (a yearning carpe diem-themed anthem).
It’s emotionally connective, on its surface, but also a little too considered, even adult contemporary-ish. Then you have “War Paint,” which is really just “Subdivisions Redux.” And the end-of-a-relationship-themed title track, which is uncomfortably facile. Rush’s newfound focus on unembellishing, a first step toward getting back to their power trio beginnings, only ends up making missteps like these more obvious.
That said, I’m not ready to say that Presto lacked ambition, not when Rush actually tried to funk out on “Chain Lightning.” They just didn’t try often enough. As such, it’s difficult to dislike the studiously approachable Presto, but harder still to love it. The truth is, Rush hadn’t yet reoriented after a lengthy period in the mainstream. It would be 1993, and the Counterparts album, before Rush completely recaptured the bristling fire of their earlier rock sound.
Meanwhile, the transitional Presto — prettier than it is consistently interesting — carves out a path to that redemptive place, something that remains its most important accomplishment.