It’s hard to believe that it’s been just over two years since Julie Doiron’s last album Goodnight Nobody, whose songs, by turns warmly sad and sadly warm, managed to withstand a barrage of competition in that time for airplay, to become mainstays I’m liable to return to at any time. And then so what a pleasant surprise that the good morning half of the equation arrives with Woke Myself Up, as different from its predecessor as espresso is to NyQuil.
Fans of Doiron’s former band, Canadian favorites Eric’s Trip, won’t be too shocked to hear upbeat, driving tracks such as the one which bears the album’s title, especially considering the band joins her on a number of tracks, and the album was produced by founding bandmate Rick White. But I only know Eric’s Trip from Mary Lou Lord’s “His Indie World”, and I’m not Canadian. So there. I was surprised by the jolt of “I Woke Myself Up” with its chugging yet not-overbearing power-chords and pounding drums. But I wasn’t so surprised by the subject matter, as Doiron’s recent forte has been the domestic vignette, first-person narratives of daily interactions, routines, and relationships.
“I Woke Myself Up” continues in the tradition of “Snow Falls in November”, elevating seemingly minor details of motherhood to basis for deeper contemplation. “Almost every night between two and four/ She rolls out of bed and onto the floor/ Sometimes I have to go in/ And put her back into her bed again,” Doiron sings with obvious affection and humor. “I woke myself up just to see her sleep/ Just to hear her quiet and just to have a look.” The “quiet” bit is especially important, as exhaustion is as much the song’s focus as the endearing mother-daughter connection. Even Doiron’s dreams (working in the garden) are tiring. When she sings “So maybe this coffee is a bad idea/ And maybe this might not work out for me,” it’s troubling but honest, how doubt is never far away from joy or introspection. On “Yer Kids” she asks, “Will your kids love you more than you know?/ ... Will you treat them any old way and they love you just the same?” What seem on the surface to be short, simple, almost mundane little songs and up as valuable artistic ventures into subjects that most musicians either avoid or soak in treacly greeting card sentiment.
Plus, they sound fantastic. “Yer Kids” begins all spare and ruminative, but the band kicking in is actually surprising—a stripped down kit of cymbal and toms leading the charge for a few squeals of electric guitar and some elegant chord-picking. The full-band tunes are lean, succinct, the arrangements possessed of the same modesty as the songs themselves. Doiron counts off the intro to the waltz-time “Swan Pond”, which is peppered with brisk drum rolls and shakers. Each of the few instruments employed is given a gymnasium’s worth of room around it. When Doiron harmonizes with herself after the first verse, it’s not a cheap device to thicken the song’s sound with some easy intervals; it’s to add further drama to the unsettling minor chord-driven ode to a shady getaway, to which the singer entreats “Swan pond oh swan pond/ Hear my song and please bring him to me.” The familiar technique of dubbing one’s own voice next to itself sounds fresh and peculiar here, for a purpose other than whim. The dual Doiron melodies coil around each other, doubling the urgency and longing of the song’s plea. Her voice shares the same dusky, stained-glass quality as Chan Marshall’s, strident but capable of fracturing at any moment.
The jangly strummed-folk of “Me and My Friend” sounds inspired by Doiron’s wonderful recent cover of Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”, using plain-spoken, conversational language instead of references to Newsweek and queens of Corona. But the song is stark, hangdog, deeply remorseful, “Me and my friend we are not friendly anymore/ We have not talked for so long/ And if we had to talk/ What could we say sitting side by side?” The level of confession in Doiron’s songs is remarkable, at times uncomfortable. Sequenced between “The Wrong Guy” and an untitled, jaw-dropping final track, the “friend” in question here is not necessarily of the platonic sort. She mourns a lost connection and a time the two could be enjoy each other’s company without speaking, again referencing the swan pond where she habitually goes to think and reflect, “The pond it seems so quiet tonight/ And the swans are all huddled together/ While I stand alone here on my way home/ Again where no one is here waiting.” It’s clear that there are other memories insinuated but never mentioned, hiding behind every word, known only to the song’s own characters. The room left for speculation serves the song well; not only is it unnecessary to know every detail, listeners are free to cut and paste them from other songs, or insert their own. While I don’t usually go for such intimately confessional writing, as it can often be self-congratulatory, awkward, and trite, Doiron’s work is absolutely none of these things. It is razor-sharp and profoundly affecting.
For instance, “The Wrong Guy”, which immediately precedes “Me and My Friend” renders a single kiss, a brief moment of infidelity, with crushing emotional gravity. “I tiptoe across the squeaky floor/ Check to see who’s around first/ No one should see this,” she sings, her melody perfectly encapsulating nervousness and shame, “I close my eyes and feel the stress/ And press my lips onto his/ No one seems to like this/ I open my eyes in horror/ To see what I’ve done/ It was the wrong guy.” On paper, the word horror looks a bit effusive, but in the song it is most appropriate. The kiss is made to sound grotesque, emotionally horrific, definitely not sexy, almost unbearable to hear described. Naturally, the band leans into this one, providing a claustrophobic atmosphere by means of a groaning bass and lumbering tempo. Guitars squall, voices break, and stomachs churn.
Not only in context with the rest of Woke Myself Up, but with past Doiron songs like “When I Awoke” and “Tonight Is No Night”, “The Wrong Guy” just aches out of the speakers. The closing, untitled track, recorded by Doiron at the last minute seals deal, “What a foolish thing I’ve done/ To lose the only one/ Who really knows me at all/ I’ve lied and I’ve cheated….” It goes on and on—but juxtaposed with a sweet, spring-like melody and progression, not a hint of pathos. The gut-wrenching feeling of having done wrong and seeing no easy way to rectify or heal is thereby given to us to feel, and I can’t explain why, but I just know I’m going to keep coming back to these songs to feel it.