[4 November 2008]
Canadian music is a sort of optical illusion: it looks quite different depending on where you stand while looking at it. The Canadian music scene (a patently ridiculous term assuming an aesthetic unity that is geographically impossible; does anyone ever talk about an “American music scene”?) shifts in the changing light. From an American standpoint, the Great White North must seem like a nation apt to produce snotty mainstream mall-punks, histrionic Francophone divas, earnest corporate-rockers, and hipper-than-thou indie crooners. From the inside, however, it’s evident that the hinterland’s who’s-who is a much more mixed bag, covering as many disparate genres as any other country’s musical output. But there is one substantial grouping of artists worth mentioning, musicians who aren’t as widely recognized outside of Canada but have multiplied like so many lagomorphs domestically: artists who really, really want to be Neil Young.
There is perhaps no other musician in this wide land who wants to be dragged over the rainbow more than Matt Mays. Originally from Hamilton, a deeply working-class steel town in Ontario, Mays grew up in Nova Scotia, a Celtic-tinged maritime province of emptied coal mines and depleted fisheries. Music is the preferred escape hatch from the harsh realities of economic deprivation, as it is in so many places, and Nova Scotia thus boasts a musical community of outsized activity and singular creative verve. Not that there’s anything peculiarly regional at play in Matt Mays’ work; it’s sturdy proletarian-rock in the finest Crazy Horse tradition that could have dug itself out from the grime of dozens of working-class milieus across the continent.
Terminal Romance is Mays’s fourth record, and it sees him returning stolidly to trad-rock safe harbors. After the lukewarm commercial reaction to 2006’s When the Angels Make Contact, an experimental concept album meant to soundtrack a film that lacked the funding to be finished, Mays unsurprisingly called in El Torpedo, the backing band that helped spawn his greatest success back in 2005, the Wilburyesque cruising-classic track “Cocaine Cowgirl”. They are unquestionably his fondest generic paramours. Besides the patented Crazy Horse crunch that dominates lead single “Tall Trees”, Tom Petty’s gritty jangle and yearning melodic sense also get copped rather shamelessly. The latter is nowhere more obvious than in album closer “Long Since Gone”, though its ethereal pedal steel solo aligns it more with country-rock in the end.
Furthermore, no rock poet of the masses can be said to have much sand in him unless he steals a march or two from the Boss (just ask Brandon Flowers, though he was hardly satisfied with one or two). Mays obliges nicely with the forward motion of “Stand and Deliver”, percolating the basic chemical components of a Springsteen lyric until they settle into synthetic substitutes like “I walk the highways and drive the beaches ‘til daylight”. Much more effective is the epic title track, which brazenly rips off Nebraska‘s desperate piano-driven passion, but nevertheless summons a unique power all its own. No doubt it would have sounded much more momentous in 1974, but it does fairly well for itself, even today.
Though Terminal Romance is an entirely solid (if predictable) release, its greatest weakness may well be that it kicks off with its greatest strength, the irresistible potboiler “Building a Boat”. Mays and El Torpedo transpose a cocky rock n’ roll swagger onto the moribund working-class industry of shipbuilding. “I’m gonna smash a big bottle of champagne / Across her bow” is a both a literal refrain and a pregnant double-entendre, especially coupled with Mays’ imminent threat to “leave you for her, baby”. Attitude aside, “Building a Boat” vibrates with the desire for glorious, rebellious escape from the world of the small and limiting that’s been the key feature of proletarian-rock since “Born to Run” at least. The fact that Mays grounds this universal desire in maritime acts like cutting down trees and fastening hatches speaks both to his singularity and to his regionalism, at long last. He may be a miner for a heart of gold, but he’ll settle for one of riveted steel until he strikes it rich.