[28 March 2011]
PopMatters PopLocal Features Editor
The press release that accompanies Memphis’s third full-length, Here Comes a City, is among the most audacious I have ever read. The closing quote from the more famous half of the Canadian pop duo, Torquil Campbell of Stars, sums up the two-man band’s philosophy of music in a decidedly insouciant light. Very rarely do you hear a musician speak so frankly about how little he cares about how other people feel about his band. “It’s kind of stupid for two grown men to have a gang based around bicycles and pop music and weed and friendship, but we do, so fuck it,” he says. “And we encourage others, by our example, to form a gang of their own and be with their friends, and write their memories down in the form of songs.”
This carefree attitude permeates Here Comes a City, the first release in five years for Campbell and his long-time friend Chris Dumont. They’ve been making music together since the late 1990s, but only in 2004 was their musical relationship codified by the release of I Dreamed We Fell Apart. It was a sweet, trippy, and distinctly Canadian pop offering recorded during Dumont’s summer visits to Vancouver, where Campbell was acting in an annual Shakespeare festival.
The spirit of those summers has lingered into Memphis’s subsequent albums, even if Campbell’s increasingly busy schedule kept the pair from seeing each other as much as they did in the beginning. On Here Comes a City, it asserts itself in bright, upbeat numbers like “Apocalypse Pop Song” and “What Is This Thing Called?” Plain, straightforward melodies, unobtrusive guitar parts and an emphasis on the upper registers give the album a pastoral, effortless affect. Most of the tracks glide by with a nonchalant sophistication, as though Dumont and Campbell put only as much thought into each arrangement as their moderate ambitions could merit.
The interest these songs inspire is accordingly inconsistent. At its best, the music feels inspired and utterly natural. “Wait!”, for example, is a catchy breakup song that embodies with wit and humility the paradox of blind love. “I told you you were cool / You said ‘Don’t speak / It just reminds me that your mouth is weak’ / You were the only one”, sings Campbell. At its worst, it is—quite simply—terribly boring. The instrumental “Reservoir” drags on for seven minutes, a bland, meandering stream of strummed guitars, pattering rhythms and melting strings.
Ultimately, though, it’s the joyful, intuitive side of the album that wins out. “I Want the Lights on After Dark”, “Apocalypse Pop Song”, and especially the highlight “I Am the Photographer” mix unreflective agreeability with just the right touch of lyrical ambiguity. On the latter, Campbell sings of a photographer who accidentally films a man jumping off a bridge. There’s something strangely beautiful about the fatal scene, and the narrator’s uncertainty builds until he concludes “He’s meant to fall into the sea / Be dragged down by the current”. The cascading refrain is draped in echoes and singing guitars, rendering the moment of suicide one of unabashed beauty.
You can hear the sensibility of Canadian pop maestros like A.C. Newman in Here Comes a City, and Dumont and Campbell clearly share their fascination with the craft of pop songwriting. Each track is a self-contained nugget of feeling and mood, from the music to the words, blissfully free from wandering trains of thought and inaccessible imagery. Dumont and Campbell don’t try to pull off anything grand, and really, they don’t have to. Here Comes a City may be little more than the sound of two friends living and reliving their stoned reveries—but what a beautiful sound it is.