Review Summary: “There was a time that I was into cute, and I did cute pretty well. That’s not really who I am now.”
I haven’t met Dan Mangan before. My sister saw him in Vancouver once -- mind you, he was “high at an Aidan Knight concert”. What I do know: he interviews charmingly, and both sings and speaks unassumingly, like he’s pleased and/or flattered that you’d take the time to hear him. His musical journey from adorable, awkward acoustic songwriter to frontman of orchestras, brass, and film scores has been well-documented in Canada, and it’s hard not to admire his determination. He played with new toys and sounds on 2011’s Oh Fortune
, and while this year’s Dan Mangan (+ Blacksmith) is far removed from his folky beginnings, Club Meds
isn’t surprising. At least, not to people who heard Mangan remark to Exclaim
last year, “I’m fairly content to shed the ‘singer/songwriter’ label; [...] I’m kind of over cute.”
No, there’s nothing cute here. There is - however - a whole lot of white noise, claustrophobic walls of sound, and atmosphere. Lyrics are unapologetically cynical; arrangements are dense and brash. It’s a beautiful blossoming for Mangan and his band, but as a cohesive whole, it’s undoubtedly front-loaded. Lead single ‘Vessel’, with Dave Grohl’s guest vocal in tow (”takes a village to raise a fool
)”, sets the tone with its glitchy percussion, clever vocal arrangements and dynamic arrangement. The groove is strong, the riffs (yes, riffs
) are memorable, and Oh Fortune
’s delightful trumpets are back for a cameo. Opener Offred
doesn’t disappoint either -- an onslaught of invasive one-liners, finger-picking, tempo changes and perhaps Mangan’s best chorus hook yet. Oh, and ‘Mouthpiece’" What a vicious ride: trading Mangan’s trademark concise and glib vocal style for a rapid-fire, range-glorying diatribe on being alive: “I understand that sometimes we almost dance with ***ery, but everybody’s pissing in the well of our suffering”
. There’s something to be said of a man who can write well enough to distract you from words that don’t yet exist.
And well, from that point on, Club Meds
’ later offerings never reach the heights its opening numbers do. The latter half of Club Meds
feels like a drunk walk home at night: uneven, yet certainly enjoyable; not memorable, but certainly quite honest. ‘Kitsch’ and ‘Forgetery’ are among the best cuts of this litter, both toying with engaging full-band arrangements and inventive percussion. Unfortunately, the atmospheric, plodding numbers that book-end these two songs only serve to dilute the quality between them. Closer ‘New Skies’ is a gorgeous track, filled with delightful contrasts, but it works best when listened to exclusively. Don’t get me wrong: there isn’t a track on Club Meds
that gets anything wrong, it’s just that they’re strung in an order and with a consistency that doesn’t allow anything to shine. See, Club Meds
is home to Dan Mangan’s most impressive music yet, but it can’t be Dan Mangan’s best album quite yet.
Mangan is frank about the record’s meaning though, and I’d be hard-pressed to say he didn’t hit the nail on the head tonally. “Club Meds is about sedation; [..] it seems like everybody else is already at the party and that life is somehow easier or more fun under the fog
”, says Mangan. And I’ll be damned if Club Meds
isn’t sedative. It’s harrowing, and it’s a bit of a dive into murky water by its ending notes, but he did warn us. He’s over cute.
“[Sedation] only makes people feel more alone, more dangerous, more desperate. It’s okay, though -- we’re all just particles.