What is “good” music? It is impossible to define, but many agree that good music is so because it strikes a certain human emotion within the listener; something about its sound affects us so deeply that we are compelled to continue listening. But more than just emotion, good music also seems to be ideal for some scenario, and thus weaves its way beyond emotions into our actual physical presence. Whether it be a wild rave, an intimate dinner party, or a gigantic arena, it seems that most good music sounds best when played in a certain setting. Plague Park, the freshman release by Handsome Furs, a duo made of Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner with Alexei Perry, is such an album. When listened to with friends in a car or at a club, it might come off as repetitive or monotonous. But, simply put, those are not the scenarios this album was meant for.
Come home, late, from a night of tense arguments with a loved one or exhausted from a full day of whining coworkers and uptight bosses. Disgusted with the world, tired of your broken heart, feeling empty and cold, flip this disc on. Immediately, the opening “What We Had”, with its hollow percussive noises in the background and Boeckner’s terse, strained vocals, will mirror your feelings. Because there are times when we need a song to pick us up, to make us love the world and love our life and dance around in the sun. But other times we don’t need a pick-me-up, we just need something to confirm our thoughts that life is shit. It is an album like Plague Park, melancholy and sad and plaintive, that meets this need: through synthesized drones and static cymbals it fills up the empty space of a lonely evening.
The disc is relatively short, clocking in at not much past half an hour. But while listening it seems much lengthier. The band’s own website states, “the point of this duo was to be as sparse and repetitive as possible,” and sparse it is—each song is no more than vocals, guitar, and drum machine loops. The album is astonishingly heavy, however; not in the sense of loud and noisy, but in the sense that each track feels weighed-down, never hurried or rushed. The song’s structures are simple, which contributes even more to the album’s weight in that every harmonic event is important, because it is rare.
“Dumb Animals” is the album’s best track, and begins with cymbals and repeated guitar strums. Each chord change seems to possess a certain weight and power, as if it was a struggle just to get there. Amid the churning, automatic rhythmic figures and synthesized beats, Boeckner’s voice is strikingly real, astonishingly human: “The stars are so high”, he says, before the mood elevates from one of detached melancholy to one of immediately urgent pain.
On the whole, the album is sad without being tragic, modest in its aching and humble in its pursuit of emotion. It never really cries out about its pain, but instead subtlety expresses to the listener its sorrow. On “Handsome Furs Hate This City” we hear, “Life is long / And hard” repeated several times. In many cases, woe-is-me lyrics come off as self-indulgent, but Handsome Furs complaints are instead self-effacing. They are not pleading for sympathy, but rather offering something we can all relate to.
In the wrong atmosphere, Plague Park is redundant and lethargic. But spin Plague Park in the right setting, on your stereo late one night in a dark, empty room, and you may find that its pervasive despondence will mingle with your disappointment, your exhaustion, your heartbreak, and somehow make you feel just a little bit better.
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// Notes from the Road
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