Prairie Fire and Ice
The cover image that graces the Rural Alberta Advantage’s sophomore album, Departing, is about as iconic in Canadiana as they come: the approaching headlights of a vehicle trying to navigate a road in the middle of a complete white-out. The image is an apt one, as Departing is, at times, about as cold and stark as a Canadian winter, which leads this reviewer a tad bit surprised that the album is dropping when March is coming on like a lion. This is as January a record as it comes, and it is jaw-droppingly stunning in its wintery bluster. If the members of early Wilco and the Arcade Fire got married, Departing would be the natural by-product. One thing about that wedding, though: shotguns are pointed at the heads of all of the parties involved, which is not to imply that the marriage is a forced one, but is meant to suggest that Departing is strictly Hickersterville, which reveals yet another oddity. The trio that forms the Rural Alberta Advantage are actually based out of Toronto, Canada, which is about as urban a city as they come, being the most populous in the nation. It should be said, though, that frontman Nils Edenloff grew up in the oil town of Fort McMurray, Alberta, and it is obvious through both the band name and his stark lyrics that his hometown experiences have definitely shaped him as an artist.
Winter holds its steely grip on the bulk of Departing, a companion piece to the 2008 debut Hometowns, with its images of ice breaking to describe the end of a relationship, snow left on winter boots, January cold snaps, and watching the stars in wintertime. Often, all you have are fragments of these images as Edenloff often slurs his words like a drunken Jeff Mangum, with a distinctly nasal whine to his voice that recalls, at times, Bob Dylan. In that sense, Edenloff’s voice is an added instrument, an embellishment that accentuates the depressing, plaintive sound at the soul of the Rural Alberta Advantage. When he wails, you feel a sense of desperation and panic, of almost being lost in a blanket of whiteness as your boot tracks disappear in the powder that’s obliterating your previous steps while the wind shrieks around you with bone-chilling gusts.
Departing is rooted in the landscape that makes up the mighty province of Alberta. Two of its songs, “The Breakup” and “Good Night”, are said to be about Fort McMurray, and another (“Barnes’ Yard”) references a city of oil. However, despite being grounded in a particular region of Canada, Departing‘s themes are much more universal . There’s a dramatic arc to the album, as lovers embrace and lose each other repeatedly as the album wears on, giving it a loose concept. Things kick off lazily with “two lovers in a sweet embrace” (“Two Lovers”), sung against a gently strummed acoustic guitar lick, a song that works best sitting beside a fireplace on a deathly freezing evening, hands being rubbed and warmed over the flames. But then, things quickly go off the rails in “The Breakup”. With its pounding drums and a church organ that makes the song almost seem stately, it’s a track that finding our narrator stuck “where summer dies, stuck in the Prairies waiting for the ice”. The contradiction between wanting to be held and being torn apart is rendered in “Under the Knife”, where our narrator pleas that “my love is going to hold you tight” even as he feels he’s being scrutinized for fear of losing the very thing he loves. It’s a picture that will crop up again and again throughout the album: grasping tentatively to that which can be easily lost. “North Star” continues the push-and-pull between being redeemed in love and holding it at arm’s length in Departing’s songs, as the titular object is “leading you back into my heart”, with lonely piano chords plinking away in a desolate, but contradictorily hopeful, manner.
Meanwhile, “Stamp”, which begins the second half of Departing, is particularly similar to the Arcade Fire with its headlong rhythms and “whoas!” that recall that group’s sing-along anthems. It’s a kiss-off to another lover as Edenloff’s final parting shot is “I don’t need you”, which goes against the grain of the earlier songs, yet furthers the theme of “departing”, being left behind and leaving. “Tornado ‘87” is another song of longing, one that references a particularly traumatic event in Alberta’s history: the Edmonton Tornado of July 1987 that killed 27 people (about half of them in a trailer park, as the cliché would have it). It’s arguably the most “summer”-like song on the record, being that it is actually set during a particular meteorological event in a particular place and setting. As “buildings are pulled into the sky”, Edenloff intones that all he wants to do is “lie down in the basement tonight” before “I let you go / ... black sky came to take you from me.” It’s a devastating song in its frank depiction of a relationship that literally can’t stand the weather.
From there, though, the album goes through a bit of a metamorphosis: It thaws, at least thematically. “Barnes’ Yard”, a boot stomper that gallops away at a two-and-a-half minute pace, shows our mismatched lovers being held close “under these skies”, which are no longer as foreboding, while the narrator’s lover’s brother is now the one in the basement “doing hot knives”, which is a drug reference I haven’t heard since my high school days (and that’s going on about 20 years now). Then, “our heart beats stop as we plunge through the ice”, which is another frosty image, but this time to show that perhaps spring is on its way and “there’s nothing going wrong in the city tonight.” However, the iciness returns with the acoustic “Coldest Days” with “winter love ... holding on to your heart”, a reminder that even the most passionate love affairs sometimes end in frigidity. The piano that graces the song exhibits a cold air of detachment, and is as spare as the never-ending Prairie. And then album closer “Good Night” implies that perhaps even the band can’t hold it together, as Edenloff waves bye-bye to “the Alberta Advantage” and discusses escaping from his life in an almost suicidal manner. Edenloff has stated in at least one interview that this album will signal an end to the sound that the band has honed over two albums, but could it be the demise of the group itself? Given the goods brokered here, one hopes not.
If there’s any flaw in Departing, it’s that at almost 33 minutes in length, it comes across as a postcard in its scope of painting stories about the barren Alberta landscape. This is definitely a record that leaves the listener begging for more, which leads one the only option of plugging it on perpetual repeat to revisit the ghostly portraits of love both kindled and gone sour as they are brought to life by the band. Edenloff’s commanding voice, and the stories of heartbreak that unfurl from it, is majestic and rooted in the best alt-country tradition. There’s also a punky edge to the record at times, which seems to borrow as much from the Boss in a similar fashion to what the Arcade Fire did with “Keep the Car Running”. Departing is a forlorn record, one that practically oozes ache and pain, and is all the more compulsive for sounding so deserted in places. When all is said and done, if Departing doesn’t make the Polaris Music Prize shortlist this year, I will quite handily eat my toque and take a New Year’s Polar Bear plunge into the sub-zero temperature of the nearest river. The Rural Alberta Advantage has delivered a rarity: An album that remarkably stuns, even though its world view is largely seen from a car stuck in the middle of snow bank on the side of the road.
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