The problem with awards for arts and entertainment (especially here in America) is that they cater to a mass appeal. Of course, it is within the very nature of a bestowed accolade to reach across the sensibilities of thousands, even millions, of individuals. The selections offered up by a nominating committee must be recognizable both to those who pay close attention to the applicable field (film, music) while, unfortunately, catering to those who don’t.
It’s an admirable feat, then, that Sam Roberts took home three big Juno Awards in Canada earlier this year for his debut full-length We Were Born in a Flame. Roberts went into the Juno race as its lesser-known candidate, beating out heavyweights like Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan, Sum 41, and Nickelback to take home Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Rock Album of the Year. These Seabiscuitian wins helped jolt an already electric buzz for Roberts, proceeding to set some high expectations for the rest of us (though, admittedly, saying you’re more artistically gifted than Nickelback isn’t saying all that much). This leads to the next hurdle offered up by an award win: living up to and defending said upset for those of us skeptical of ceremonies. It’s easy to ignore the influence of awards when they constantly fail to meet your subjective standards; still, it’s tough not to wonder what all the fuss is about.
So what is all the fuss about? Well, Sam Roberts and his little-LP-that-could may have been underdogs, but We Were Born in a Flame remains the kind of crowd-pleasing fare endorsed by the popular vote nonetheless. The album is a series of self-reflections that comply with an easily defined, universal worldview: past pleasures, present pains, some slippery, non-committal spirituality, so on and so forth. Like a trailer to a movie that reveals its entire plot within a two-minute span, you can gather the album’s themes upon an initial inspection of song titles: life’s a hard road populated by some killjoys, you’re always walkin’ that hard road, which leads to little sleep, hence this wreck of a life, this dead end, that ultimately results in—gasp!—paranoia. Life’s a bitch and then you die. Join the club.
We Were Born in a Flame isn’t a failed record (in fact, it’s got a handful of very strong songs), but the larger point is that it isn’t the revelatory monkey wrench stuck in Juno’s gears that one wishes it was. The album has a fair share of simple roots-rock pleasures; while none of these transcend normalcy, they don’t wallow in it either. “Hard Road” stomps like the Jayhawks, beating its two chords into the ground before a welcomed bridge offers some melodic relief. “Brother Down” plays like a rootsy Stone Roses, its guitars jangling alongside the rhythm section’s steady groove. There’s a Big Star crunch to “Don’t Walk Away Eileen”, which effectively laments a love that’s so close, yet so far away.
There are just too few winning moments here; for every one undeniable hook, there are two more songs of nondescript filler. The tired rock retreads “Rarefied” and “On the Run” provide a one-two punch of cliché: “You take up all my time, little woman” and “Baby, you’re so cruel / You got me breakin’ all the rules” preach the kind of uninspired lethargy bemoaned in later tracks like “This Wreck of a Life”. Roberts’ narratives come from a carefree guy living in a world that just won’t let him kick up his feet, and this is often expressed in the most prosaic fashion. Call me jaded, but start wringing lines like “I’m too young to be old” or “The train for my salvation / Is departing from the station”, and you’ve officially crossed over to the squandered potential section.
The Juno Awards have done wonders for Roberts and his band, making them household names in Canada and helping to land opening slots for tours by Oasis and the Tragically Hip. But maybe we should just ignore awards altogether and not let them affect how we discover new artists. It taints our expectations and undermines our better judgment, in the end inflicting guilt when we don’t stand up and applaud with the rest of the crowd.