Inevitably, Patrick Watson is doomed to comparison with his more magniloquent cabaret pop predecessor, Rufus Wainwright. But aside from their operatic vocal styles, for which both men are indebted to the late Jeff Buckley, the two have very little in common. If Wainwright represents a Broadway theater, then Watson is a two-hundred seat venue somewhere in the West Village. Unlike Wainwright’s Want albums and Release the Stars, Watson’s music emphasizes intimacy over showmanship.
And then there is Watson’s subject matter.
Close to Paradise brings fantasy to an indie subculture that has almost always favored emotive non-fiction. Much of Watson’s success lies in what he leaves to the imagination. Instrumentally, empty spaces create tension, making the project sound bigger than its constituent parts. Watson, who can surprise you with jazzy flourishes, mostly keeps his piano playing in the background. The musicians are clearly craftsmen, not garage band wannabes, and there’s a substratum energy to their restrained playing. The vagueness of songs like “Bright Shiny Lights” reminds you of what your high school English teacher told you when you asked what The Waste Land was about: “Art doesn’t have to be about anything in particular, hon’. In fact, sometimes it’s about everything”—a statement whose grandiosity still makes you smirk, even though you knew immediately that there was a little truth to it. In the same fashion, “Slip into Your Skin” evokes a late night street scene “where lamps are the sunshine for the trees”.
Watson’s songs aren’t about politics or romance, or romantic politics. They simply look with a child’s curiosity at a few brief snapshots of our world. Other highlights, like “The Storm”, a variation on a mariner’s tale, riff on folk genres and New World mythologies to create something that seems to crackle like an old LP even as it plays through your iPod buds. If there’s one defining feature of Watson’s voodoo, it’s his ability to make time itself seem irrelevant.
Of course, this whole emphasis on the fantastic always leads to charges of escapism, and no one’s arguing. In “The Great Escape”, the protagonist gets into his car and drives away from whatever unexplained troubles he’s been facing at home. The lyric could be the thesis for the entire album. “Take me to a nice imaginary place,” it seems to say, “because I can’t bear the weight of reality.” If art is fundamentally a vehicle for social change and self understanding, the critics rant, escapist art achieves nothing. Granted, Patrick Watson will never carry the same cultural weight as, say, Radiohead or socially conscious rap. But sometimes critically-acclaimed, politically-charged art can get a little too heady for the train ride home on a Friday, especially after a hellish week at work, and that’s where work like this fills a gap of need.