[9 April 2009]
There’s a double standard in what we want out of our artists as they grow and evolve. Overall, we want our musicians to be pure of spirit, free from the fickle whim of our fancies, as strong as those wants may be. Yet, we’d also like our artists to become products of our desires, to anticipate our own musical development and to match it closely, all the while retaining the authenticity that drew us to them and never resorting to imitation or mockery. We want albums that are consistent and flow as a unified whole, giving the artist his or her own personal style. And yet within those albums, we also want diversity, because we get bored with artists who repeat themselves and who retreat to their trademark style as a substitute for creativity.
This is why most artists these days don’t have much shelf life. The tide of time is tough for music in a consumer society trained in novelty and shaped by emotional resonance. We seek in our music the eternal and the zeitgeist simultaneously. Once recorded, a song remains the same hylic entity. It doesn’t age, but it changes in tandem with how we change. It’s fair to say that this, too, is often what we hope for, even demand, in our artists: the mirror and the model. Which is quite a tall order.
The Ontario duo Junior Boys (Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus) are at the point in their careers where the expectations start getting unreasonable. To a degree, they have themselves to blame for that. On the heels of their third full length Begone Dull Care, Junior Boys are already responsible for two masterpieces, 2004’s slow-motion two-step debut Last Exit, and the slightly superior surprise sophomore outing So This Is Goodbye. Even their last remix EP (Dead Horse) was essential, not to mention ex-Junior Boy Johnny Dark’s fantastic mutant UK-by-way-of-Canada garage gems (Can’t Wait) and the small wonder of remixes and guest spots by Greenspan.
Begone Dull Care anticipates its own backlash in the chorus of its opening track. “Leers, jeers, whispers and tears / That final taste before you’re taken away”, Greenspan sings, recognizing the temporality of his spotlight. “Seems like you’re done / You are”, he says later in the album on “Dull to Pause”, assumedly to his mirror (“The icy edge is still our reflection”, he notes in the same track, which is ironically the least icy song of his career).
Just as on “Cities of Smoke and Flame” from last year’s collaboration between Greenspan and Metro Area’s Morgan Geist, much of the lyrics on Begone Dull Care pertain to the anxieties listed above and their toll on romance (“I see you better when the lights run out”), stability (“You can never feel at home / Because you’ve been off and away too long”), creativity (“I was pacing around…I had nothing to say”), and the ability to communicate in general (“If you found the words / Would you really say them / Or stutter through the verse / With mumbled punctuation”—though I’m not sure how you mumble punctuation).
On “Work”, a hot, sweaty slab of coldwave/techno-pop arpeggio somewhere between the Pet Shop Boys and Twitch-era Ministry reduces its throbbing bass pounds and tin bell melody to factory labor NRG. Greenspan’s lyrics make it sound like he’s caught in the gears like Chaplin, worn out, pissed off, and tired of the scene. “Hot spill / Cheap thrill / You’re the last on the line / You’ve wasted your time / You’re too eager to stall…Left with your empty faith…So work it, baby, work it”.
Luckily, Greenspan’s exhaustion does not translate to the music, which sounds as enthusiastic as ever. It’s the band’s oddest collection of songs, which is likely to put a few people off, as will the lack of the aforementioned “consistency”. But although it is overcast by the shadow of its two towering predecessors, Begone Dull Care is still a robust set of perverse pop songs, not unlike a Cupid and Psyche 85 in the age of Max Tundra. Its joys are many, and its surprises, while perhaps grating at first to those who thought the Junior Boys aesthetic had reached its pinnacle (like me), are warmly rewarding.
The most radical departure on the album is “Dull to Pause”, a track that proves by contrast just how dark the rest of the band’s oeuvre is. Like all Junior Boys tracks, the song has a certain elasticity to it, but the ebullient bounce of the song’s acoustic guitars (yes, acoustic guitars—albeit guitars that are entangled in digital granulation) is more of a trampoline hop than the band’s patented rubbery and sensual dub echo. Greenspan and Didemus even add a brief third quarter aloha twang to the mix for good measure.
Other strange elements appear here and there. Overtones a la Yves Klein’s “Monotone Symphony” abound. Art of Noise/Yello voice blips emerge in “Parallel Lines” and “Bits & Pieces”, as well as high-pitched submarine beacons, nostalgic synth tones, and a cheesy fake-horn solo in the latter.
An even cheesier Miami Vice pseudo-sax appears in “Sneak a Picture”, the most Hall n’ Oates-sounding Junior Boys outing to date, and one of Begone Dull Care’s two gorgeous ballads. “What It’s For” is the other slow jam, ending the album on a bright uplift like So This Is Goodbye’s “FM”. Both expertly wear the guise of simplicity over an abundance of intricate detail, and each merge glacially slick electronics with Balaeric guitars. Then there’s the divine glitch-moog solo populating the end of “Hazel”, the easy contender for lead single status. It exists on some celestial plane dueling with “Digital Love” for the crown of nostalgic royalty.
Begone Dull Care almost feels like slipping outside, like the band performing as anything other than the Junior Boys. But it’s exactly when the Junior Boys within them shine through the charade of evolution that they are allowed to pierce through, into both the eternal and the zeitgeist.