Nobody could accuse this song of opening with an iconic riff. Instead we get 2:20 of street sounds, synth burbling, and a slow but steady build into the main themes of the song. One concept comes to mind over and over as I listen - proclamation. This song can be very sparse in places, then suddenly burst forth into a chord or melody which sustains or repeats but does not immediately become something else. Here it is. This is the chord. This is the riff. Do what you will with it. I first notice it at 0:50, when Al hits a note and just lets it ring for a little over a second, and then again 1:32, when that chord gets to ring for four solid seconds (albeit with a little synth and drum activity under). They add layers and textures to it after that, but this song still contains lots of space. It creates a nice contrast with the imagery of the lyrics and with the more frenetic passages to come.
Anyway, at 2:20 we suddenly shift gears and Geddy begins playing an oddly monotonous keyboard line, which at 2:44 gets overlaid with one of the song's main recurring figures. There's something beautifully self-contained about that riff, and it comes on so strong that it develops that proclaiming feeling I referenced earlier. If Sex Bob-omb had this song to fall back on, the Katayenagi Twins wouldn't have lasted long enough for their motion effects to finish. The Army Corps of Engineers should be testing this melody to see if it can hold back floods. Let's take a break from hyperbole and notice how Rush develop it without changing it - first its guitar over synth, then guitar over bass, then it goes higher and both guitars get a layer of time effects.
Around 3:30 we get a different melody that sets the stage for the first verse. I adore the smoothness of the bass line here; you could overlook it if you had no interest in bass, and yet it really requires considerable skill to get it right. Gedd first displays precision at 3:33, muting and sounding every note quite clearly, and then at 3:36 shows that he can let things sort of slur together. While he sings, he uses more slides then usual, letting the bass follow the vocals much more than he usually does. Alex, who had been using a really beautiful overdriven sound, suddenly backs waaaay off and jangles along with the bass. Even with headphones on, I have to really concentrate to pick guitar out at all. It takes a dose of EQ to really bring them out.
At 4:42 everything quiets way down to let Geddy (singing through a chorus effect) utter Neil's meditations about the way people inhabit the city without really noticing it... and then suddenly it's a bit of a solo, building energy as we go into the climax of the first verse.
Neil's lyrics really evoke the sense of being in a big city, where the minutia of daily life can so easily crowd out the achievement a city represents. I've no love for New York, but you only have to have been in a midly tall building to realize that something that looks amazing from the outside can quickly become a cube farm with a smelly bathroom on the inside, with a view you only appreciate when you're too distracted to be blase about it. I do think there's some hefty poetic license required to take two opposites (realities and possibilities) and try to resolve them by saying that the focus is sharp. If so, that's one fast moving autofocus, chief, but I suppose we can let it slide.
Right around the six minute start they basically start over, but slightly more embellished. Neil, in particular, replaces the light rolls he used earlier with solid thwacks, giving this second verse an "I mean it this time" quality. I love these lyrics - "wistful and weathered, the pride still prevails" works on every possible level for me. The "steeped in the history of London" line calls to mind Eliot's "history is now and England," but then I can't hardly trip over anything good without trying to find some way to reference Eliot, so I may be forcing that a little.
Anyway, enough about lyrics, let's talk solo, cause at 9:17 things get real. There's a beautiful symmetry to this solo - Alex milking that Les Paul sound for all its worth while Geddy goes absolutely nuts (esp 9:27), then Alex stepping up a little, and then going absolutely berserk at 9:52 just as Geddy drops back to playing the riff from 2:44. As a whole the solo suffers slightly from gratuitousness, but the pieces fit together so perfectly that I can't imagine anyone really minding.
I've always liked this song, and I was stoked to finally hear it live on this latest tour. Rush have lots of rocking out hardcore prog songs, but relatively few songs this simply, purely, deliberately pretty.