Sam Roberts: Chemical City

[23 August 2006]

By Winston Kung

For such a quintessentially Canadian singer-songwriter—he’s a former hockey player, for goodness’ sake—Sam Roberts has always seemed more heavily interested in the music south of the border than his other indie contemporaries. His first album, We Were Born in a Flame, was an enjoyable slab of rootsy pop/rock, creative in its melodies, but smartly restrained in his ambitions. Now, with sophomore effort Chemical City, Roberts has thrown all that restraint to the winds. Hell, he’s not content with just sounding eerily like Dylan with the scratchy voice and folk-grit lyrics, let’s throw some Lennon trippiness and Springsteen grandeur in there, too, for good measure!

With names like that, you’d have to expect something sprawlingly ambitious, and surely enough Chemical City is an epic journey through Americana, its instrumentation and scope reminiscent of the prog albums of the early ‘70s. And for a few dazzling moments in the beginning, he actually succeeds in channeling the three aforemented rock gods; opener “The Gate” speeds forward like one of Springsteen’s beloved Chevrolets through the images of an abandoned city, all topped with psychedelic swirls on top. It’s easy to see where this could fall apart, but Roberts is smart enough to understand the capacity of a driving bass and beat to pull a song together and fully take advantage of it.

But it’s a downhill slide from the promising momentum of the opener. For better or for worse, Roberts is still acutely self-aware of the indie ethic that he’s grounded in, and the only other time the album explodes into such momentous arena rock is with “Mind Flood”, which features an addictive bass groove followed by a gloriously trancelike four-minute guitar solo. Like “The Gate”, it’s definitely overstrained, but it’s still energetic enough to sweep a listener up in its sound.

That’s more than can be said for the rest of the album, which alternates between quiet ballads, hooky roots-rock, and tripped-out meanderings—most of which boil down to unmemorable and oddly tedious. The pop-rock tracks, such as “The Bootleg Saint” and “The Resistance”, are beautifully produced, but lack strong underlying melodies. Moreover, the fact that they’re piled up near the end means it’s dangerously easy to zone out through an entire portion of the album. “An American Draft Dodger in Thunder Bay” may be the only track here to leave an impression, with a catchy chorus hook that serves as a reminder to its absence on the other tracks.

Meanwhile, the ballads hurt from bland lyrics. For all the road bard posturing Sam Roberts does, the fact is he’s not a great lyricist, too often falling back on clichéd couplets. “My love for you is as deep as a coal mine”, he croons as the chorus in “With a Bullet”. Blue-collar rootsiness? Check. Lovelorn yearning? Check. Metaphorical imagery? Check. And so the lyrics go, clumsily slapped together through the entire album.

Too often, Chemical City feels like it’s straining in two different directions: the psychedelic bombast of the bigger tracks and the more traditional rock/pop Roberts has done up till now. He’s shown he’s got the potential and ability to do either, but the former only works if he’s willing to commit and run away with it. As it stands, Chemical City is a mostly unmemorable effort that weighs down its occasional moments of brilliance.

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