[30 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
You could never accuse Doug Paisley of not being self-aware. He calls his new album, Strong Feelings, “just 10 new songs,” and if this feels like understatement, well, the Toronto singer-songwriter is the understated type. His folk-rock records, especially 2010’s Constant Companion, have quietly garnered praise, and with good reason. Paisley is a sure-fire voice in country and folk circles, writing songs about busted or breaking relationships, music, mortality, memory, nostalgia, all that stuff that country music has always been fascinated with.
The best thing about Paisley’s approach is that it’s not about reinvention or alt-anything or winking irony. These are ten, honest and well-written songs. If they feel too close to tradition it’s because Paisley doesn’t seem interesting in leaving yesterday behind. “I turned the radio on 25 years ago,” he says to start the record on “Radio Girl”, and I’m not sure he’s turned it off since, building his own voice by honoring and mastering those that came before him. He may make you think of Waylon and Willie and the boys, but Paisley’s not waiting around for an invitation to Luckenbach on Strong Feelings. He’s making his own path, even if it’s down a well-worn road.
That’s not to say that Strong Feelings does exactly what Constant Companion did. Instead, the palate expands here and the players multiply and the sound, in places, gets richer and warmer as a result. “A Song My Love Can Sing” expands out from Paisley’s voice and guitar into wide-open spaces, provided first and foremost by the organ work of the Band’s legendary member Garth Hudson. “To and Fro” twangs with a more strutting assurance, as layers of guitar swell and ripple through the track, blowing out the blues-rock verses into a triumphant chorus. Meanwhile “It’s Not Too Late (To Say Goodbye)” turns that rollicking side to something more bittersweet, as the songs ring out into dark spaces that seem to surround the song.
The record starts with many of these more lush sounds, as if to jolt us to life. But from there the middle of the record gets sparer, more intimate. “What’s Up is Down” is a perfect back and forth between soft guitar and unpredictable, nuanced piano phrasings. “Old Times” pulses, but only faintly, as Paisley uncovered roots under turned earth, digging yet again into the past while his voice pulls against it with subtle immediacy and fragile range. “Growing Souls”, once again graced with Hudson’s organ work, doesn’t look back so much as it stands still, stuck in grief and isolation, not crushed by it but mining it in the moment for all it could hide, all it could reveal.
These songs in the middle of the record are unmistakably Paisley’s. If he does, in his bigger songs, run the risk of making by-the-numbers folk-rock (something he mostly avoids), these songs are too intimate and too charming in their melancholy and frayed hope to be anything but his. But what helps make them his is, yes, his own rich voice, but also his sing companion here. Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara steps in where the likes of Feist have been before—as the female counterpart to Paisley’s voice—and mesmerizes. It’s her sweet shadow that makes Paisley’s singing on “What’s Up is Down” so textured, so striking. And the duet that closes the record, sifts away all the yesterdays and loss and romance for the road that can get between two people and renews a connection between two people.
You buy it with these two voices. And you also buy it because Paisley tries to reach his love “in a song.” He and O’Hara clearly believe in the power of music, to distract us sometimes, to even steer us wrong, but also to hopefully bring us back home. Even as the two claim “time has robbed us of all these precious moments,” their voices sound eager to make the next moment count, even if love may be fleeting, just “a beautiful dream.” For an album so fascinated by the elasticity of time, by how it can drag out and fly by, it’s odd to realize that the finest quality of Strong Feelings is it’s timelessness. The songs, the sound, the words, they could have come out any time in the past four decades and they’d fit. But they couldn’t have been written convincingly by anyone else.