As the 1980's were drawing to a close, Rush would once again begin stretching themselves musically, moving in a different direction from their last several albums. As it turns out, Presto would not be a total break from the synth-heavy material that dominated the band's output during the 80's, but it would indicate yet another transition in the group's musical approach.
This was the first album for the band with Atlantic records, having ended their long-time partnership with Mercury/ PolyGram. Rush had originally intended to work again with Peter Collins as the album's producer, but Collins had to bow out for personal reasons. The group eventually wound up working with engineer Rupert Hine, who would produce both this album and the next one to follow for the band. Hine and Rush did not completely move away from the synthesizers that helped to define the band earlier in the decade, but their use was lessened, with Lifeson's guitar moving once again into the forefront. Peart's approach to songwriting also shifted with this album, moving away from abstract concepts, instead concentrating on more personal, yet concrete, experiences.
The album starts off with 'Show Don't Tell', a slightly funk-inspired tune which deals with confronting someone who has fooled them once too often with lies and misdirections, framed against the backdrop of a courtroom trail where the deceived is both “the judge and the jury”. It's not the strongest opening track on a Rush album by any means, but it was a popular single for the band, becoming only the second song for the group to top the U.S. Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks Chart (the first being 'New World Man'). Next is 'Chain Lightning', where Neil returns to his science-as-metaphor trick that he occasionally employs, in this case touching on how we deal with our surroundings, and we share that experience with others. It's one of the best tracks on the album, merging powerful music with excellent and heartfelt lyrics.
'The Pass' is arguably the band's most poignant song, a solemn, slower tune that deals with the topic of teen depression and the romanticization of suicide, and manages to do so without being clichéd or patronizing. Geddy's singing is at his most emotional here, and the music backs up that emotion nicely. 'War Paint' touches on the nature of illusions and masks, framed against the courtships of youth (using both classical and modern imagery), where neither the image we show to others, and the self-image we think of ourselves as, are necessarily a truthful representation of our true selves. 'Scars' features a complex drum arrangement inspired by various tribal rhythms that Neil encountered during his bicycle tour of Africa. It's also a rare instance of the bassline actually being the result of a sequencer. Lyrically it touches on the nature of memories, both good and bad, and how those memories can leave lasting impressions on us.
The title track 'Presto' has a nice bit of acoustic guitar work from Alex, a playful and spritely riff that nicely accompanies Neil's wistful lyrics about hindsight and the desire to make all the wrong things right. 'Superconductor' is a fast-paced, highly kinetic, and extremely tight tune with a great guitar riff; its catchy, upbeat nature (it just may be the only Rush song that you can actually dance to) is deliberately contrasted with highly cynical lyrics about how easy it is in the music industry to market a false-but-entertaining persona in lieu of actual musical talent (and remember, this was written years before American Idol hit the airwaves). After that we have 'Anagram (for Mongo)', a humorous title for a song that deals with serious topics, but in a playful manner (many of the song's lyrics are anagrams of each other). This seems to be a song that a number of hardcore prog-rock fans seem to dislike, which only feeds into my theory that no small amount of prog fans take themselves waaaaay too seriously, and seem to regard 'fun' as a strange and foreign concept.
'Red Tide' is an ominous, yet dynamic piece that talks about an ecological plague and the need to address it while it is still possible to do so. Musically, there's a lot of tension that is conveyed here, between both Lifeson's guitar solo and a really nice bit of piano work from Geddy. This is one of those songs that's easy to ignore at first, but can slip up on you after you hear it a few times. 'Hand Over Fist' addresses the need for forgiveness to overcome conflict, and to open yourself up to others even if you've been hurt in the past, framed around the classic game of rock-paper-scissors. Finally, the album's closing track 'Available Light' is a sweeping and heartfelt composition, with more fine piano work from Geddy, as well as some bluesy riffs from Alex. It's a reflective piece (not unlike 'Time Stand Still' from Hold Your Fire), but it's also hopeful and optimistic, choosing not to dwell too much on the past, while acknowledging that the past is inevitably tied to where you are now. It's a beautiful song, and a fine choice to close out the album.
Presto is a definite step up from Hold Your Fire; there are several excellent tracks here ('Chain Lightning', 'The Pass', 'Superconductor', 'Red Tide', 'Available Light'), and the rest of the songs here are still quite good, even if they don't stand out quite as much. In the end, Presto is even by Rush standards an album that stands alone; it has a unique sound that is distinct from the rest of the band's output throughout the years. As a result, it's remarkably un-dated; it's still very fresh musically, even two decades after it was made, and if it was released today it would not sound anachronistic.
Probably the main drawback of the album is the almost subdued nature of the production at times, which works well enough on some of the subtler pieces, but drains a bit of the energy from the more fast-paced tunes that are present here. Overall, it's a far cry from the band's bombastic 70's fare, instead showing a surprising amount of restraint, using just the notes needed for each song, and not a single note more. Presto isn't as immediately accessible as some other Rush albums, but it is one that benefits heavily from multiple listenings.