The Constantines are one of those bands whose workmanlike attitude makes them impossible to hate. These hard working, hard-touring Canadian boys are your typical, earnest rockers, a band who has delivered every single time on record, be it their ferocious 2002 debut, the more even-keeled but more nuanced Shine a Light, not to mention the impressive handful of EPs they’ve put out in the past. As solid as their recorded work is, they’re even better live. There’s a reason why many Constantines album reviews start out with a preamble about how potent their live show is; you may like “Hyacinth Blues” on record, but egad, dear reader, when you hear that song in a packed club, climaxing with the “O-V-E-R-D-O-S-E” chant, for a while there, anyway, it sounds like the greatest rock song ever. Displaying a lyrical sincerity that’s as strongly influenced by Ian MacKaye and Fugazi as their music is, the Constantines wear their hearts on their sleeves, and ask listeners to do the same, while delivering soul-stirring blends of hardcore and classic rock ‘n’ roll. This is workingman’s indie rock at its finest, and when Shine a Light won over even more admirers a couple years ago, we all thought it was only a matter of time before this Guelph, Ontario band hit it big.
Needless to say, expectations were very high in anticipation of the Cons’ third full-length, but while everyone conjured mental images of an even more explosive display of post punk soul, the band went and threw us all a curveball. Not just any curveball, mind you, but one of those devastating, drop-off-the-table sliders that leaves hitters whiffing helplessly like little leaguers. Gone are the aggressive bursts of guitars, the surreally poetic manifestos bellowed by lead howler Bryan Webb, the tense songs that wind up an audience as tightly as possible. Instead, we get an album that’s understated, introspective, and lugubrious enough to either enthrall longtime fans, or completely alienate them.
Tournament of Hearts is an apt title; not only is it a sly in-joke for the Canadians in the crowd (the connection between “Tournament of Hearts”, the annual curling championship that bears the name, and the pile of granite rocks on the cover is something only a Canadian would chortle at), but it also serves as a fitting theme for the album, as love and life among the working class seems to be the band’s focus this time around. Hotline operators, nurses, and thieves contemplate life during blackouts, embrace in bed to ward off the fierce Ontario cold, and stand in the rain, claiming we desire disorder. Not unlike Husker Du’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories, Tournament of Hearts jumps from scenario to scenario, Webb and Steve Lambke serving up poignant snapshots of the lovelorn, climaxing with the restless line, “Best get new dreams, these old dreams won’t last.”
Lyrically, Webb and Lambke are as masterful as always, but unfortunately, somebody should have told them to focus more on the actual music, as the actual songwriting is inconsistent at best; for every one track that renews our faith in the band, there’s another that shatters our expectations, disappointingly hookless, lifeless songs that just go through the motions. Granted, the upside of this record is its small handful of sublime moments. “Working Full-Time” is as good as anything the band has ever recorded, a pulse-pounding, brooding manifesto that has the Young Offenders and Young Lions of the past dealing with the workaday life (“Day, do I have the guts to greet you?”), the song driven by Lambke and Webb’s slicing chords, Doug MacGregor’s taut drumming, Dallas James Wehrle’s trademark mellifluous bassline, and Will Kidman’s subtle keyboard accents. Conversely, the startlingly lovely, country-tinged “Soon Enough” successfully nails the gloriously ragged sound of Crazy Horse, Webb delivering his best vocal performance to date. “Draw Us Lines” rattles with the kind of tension the band excels at, while “Love in Fear” goes for a much darker tone, Wehrle’s bass taking on more of a dub sound, and instead of bursting in a cacophony of chords and cymbal crashes, the song shifts into a smoother chorus, featuring streamlined guitars, a taut drum tempo, and the nocturnal strains of Rhodes piano.
As good as half the album’s songs are, too many are simply too mediocre to accept, especially when considering just what the Constantines are capable of. Lambke’s two songs are especially weak; the awkward “Thieves” goes for a krautrock-goes-reggae feel (very much like Can’s “Dizzy Dizzy”) but with none of the charisma, the tone-deaf vocals too much of a distraction, while the hushed “Windy Road”, for all its lyrical poignance, is only marginally more compelling. The lumbering “Lizaveta” is a boring, downtempo piece of turgid sludge, while “Good Nurse” and “Hotline Operator” sound not so much genuine as just pure shtick, Cons-by-numbers, failing to hold a candle to earlier, similar-sounding songs.
It’s admirable that the Constantines have attempted to do something different from their previous work, but like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Howl, for all the experimentation, sometimes it’s better so stick to the crowd-pleasing formula, especially when they do it so well. Aside from the thrilling “Working Full-Time”, we get plenty of emotion, but very little passion. It’s an interesting, albeit tepid, departure, but it’s ultimately a mild disappointment.