When Rush’s 13th album came out in late 1989, much was made about the band’s purported return to the classic power trio hard rock of the early days. After a near decade of keyboard-centered forays into new wave and pop, this was Lee, Lifeson, and Peart’s glorious return to rock, or as the press releases and interviews would lead folks to believe. And indeed, the band sounded a lot more robust on the lead-off single “Show Don’t Tell” than they had in many years, the song kicking off with a quirky little groove that sounded lively and fun, and for many fans it was a joy to hear a new song that just had Dirk, Lerxt, and the Professor on bass, guitar, and drums. However, that brief little snippet, hyped as it was, was more of a red herring than anything else, as Presto would turn out to be yet another continuation of Rush’s great pop experiment.
Replacing Peter Collins as producer was Rupert Hine, another British producer with a very strong pop/new wave background, having worked on albums by The Fixx, Howard Jones, and Tina Turner. Ironically, it would be Hine who would ease Rush out from under all the synths, resulting in an album that would make the arrangements more rock-oriented while still maintaining the strong pop sensibility of the band’s musical direction at the time. However, what makes Presto such an anomaly in the band’s discography is that despite bringing that traditional rock element back, it remains an oddly twee album.
Twee, but at its best, endearingly so. And the album does get off to a very strong start with four excellent tracks. “Show Don’t Tell” is a prime example of Rush’s skill at creating sly little prog rock suites in the pop milieu, balancing heavy rock, acoustic-tinged verses, and anthemic choruses. In lesser hands it would feel incongruous, but the way the band builds to the surprisingly graceful bridge — with keyboards by Lee that enhance rather than overwhelm — is masterful. “Chain Lightning” is much more conventional, perhaps a little beneath Rush, but they make it work, thanks to an affable little chorus accentuated by thin-sounding guitars by Lifeson that are so late-’80s they practically scream “Stephen Street.” Equally rote is “War Paint,” but the song offers a very good balance of pulsating rock and shimmering pop, culminating in a pleasing climactic chorus in its final minute. The real ace, however, is the majestic “The Pass.” Prior to that song Rush’s attempts at balladry always felt forced, but “The Pass” exudes grace, Peart eloquently musing about teen suicide (“Raging at unreachable glory/ Straining at invisible chains”) and Lee turning in one of the best vocal performances of his career. It’s a song the band remains immensely proud of — Peart admits he gets choked up every time he plays it — and one it still performs to this day.
After such an assured start, Presto quickly takes a turn for the worse. Featuring African-inspired rhythms by Peart and very ill-advised bass composed on sequencer, “Scars” goes awry almost instantly, the sound of a band more preoccupied with sounding like Midnight Oil than sticking to its own strengths. “Superconductor” is far too playful to work, coming across as an awkwardly assembled novelty, a shocking misfire by a usually reliable trio of songwriters, not to mention a horrible, horrible choice as a single. While “Anagram (For Mongo)” is a worthy mellow excursion, the closing trifecta of “Red Tide,” “Hand Over Fist,” and “Available Light” slips into pure schmaltz, as Rush and Hine reduce the music to bland AOR fodder.
After an astounding series of high quality albums, this was the first Rush record since Fly By Night where the difference from excellent to mediocre was that wide. Still, the popularity of “Show Don’t Tell” and “The Pass” helped make Presto a modest success, enough to encourage Rush to continue its partnership with Hine. Only next time, the results would be far more polarizing, and, in the opinion of many, disastrous.