Mark Szabo is one of those most rare of species in this Internet age—a true ghost. His online footprint consists of an old interview, a YouTube video in which AC Newman (of the New Pornographers) and John Darnielle (of Mountain Goats) briefly discuss his songwriting, and an online review by Dan Bejar (of Destroyer and New Pornographers) of his CD Chocolate Covered Bad Things. So despite the props from some of North America’s first rank of singer-songwriters, it’s likely that the first exposure of listeners to Mark Szabo will be through the prism of Heartbreak Scene’s interpretations.
The facts we know: Szabo is a singer-songwriter from Vancouver. He was a member of bands Good Horsey and Capozzi Park. He plays his guitar upside-down because he is left handed. Heartbreak Scene is a project headed by vocalist Marcy Emery and made up of a number of established Canadian musicians (including Bejar and a few other New Pornographers). They’ve re-arranged and recorded a selection of Szabo’s songs under the name The Szabo Songbook and released it on a small independent label, Fayettenam Records.
But that’s all you need to know, because any further than this and Szabo’s music more than speaks for itself. It seems one of the objectives for Emery in making this record was (in Szabo’s words) “to see what I’d be like produced well”, which makes you wonder a little what a Szabo original sounds like—these are crisp, clean productions, but not necessarily high-tech. The basic acoustic guitar-bass-drums-voice arrangements, with smatterings of keyboards, will bring the New Pornographers to mind, especially after we’ve been primed by the participants. But once you start listening past the production and the instrumentation, the songwriting sensibility of Szabo begins to appear, just like its champions assert, as one of the most illuminating and rewarding ones around.
The songs on this album insinuate through everyday imagery and the common experiences of young adulthood—the awkwardness of first sex, dislocated friendships, being in a band. Szabo’s lyrics hover on the border between narrative and poetry, which makes for some memorable imagery. One example: “I like the way that you kiss”. We kissed. “I love the way that you curl / Around me / It makes me feel like a child / And I haven’t felt that for a while”. That’s from the last song, “(Some Kind of) Watershed”. See what I mean?
The songwriting’s also varied and clever. “I Should Be With You” should be a teenage anthem, its stuttering acoustic guitar a perfect foil for the frustrated dislocation between the song’s subject and her lover. The coda of “Alibi” ends abruptly—“At this moment I can’t even call us friends / Just call us even, end of story”—and it’s entirely appropriate for the song’s quick-changing chord structure. And when things are slowed down, as on the sublime “Don’t Make Me Sorry”, instead of becoming standard ballads the music seems ten times more desolate.
A snippet of conversation between Newman and Darnielle on YouTube implies that Szabo stopped writing music some time ago. That’s a real shame, given the talent on display here. But rather than bemoan the disappearance of a genius songwriter (like that hasn’t been done before), let’s celebrate the stunning renditions offered us by Heartbreak Scene. If all they do is recreate Szabo’s music, it’s enough to hope for many more albums from this worthy project.