It's unfortunate that this wonderful songwriter had to let the aesthetics of "hipster" folk music ruin his once earnest voice.
I first heard of Dan Mangan through the once-popular, now social network wasteland, MySpace. The electric soul of Mangan’s best song, “Western Wind”, caught my attention right away and I very quickly scooped up a copy of his first record, Postcards and Daydreaming. I have the first-press version with the cover featuring a solitary eye staring back at you, as opposed to the updated “art house” version of a sketched man-with-hat staring pensively into the distance. The cover update was clearly a calculated move to gently guide Mangan’s fans into the direction he was now deciding to embark upon -- the apathetic eclectic-sounding hipster who feigns baring his soul, when really every move is self-conscious and very affected.
Mangan’s second record, Nice, Nice, Very Nice, was released on August of 2009 here in his native Canada, and I was eager to here what this inspiring songwriter was up to. Was he still the same one who had broken my heart with tunes like “Journal of a Narcoleptic”, “Western Wind”, and “Not What You Think It Is”? Needless to say, I was thoroughly underwhelmed, and quite annoyed at his attempt to be more “musically cool” by singing such nonsensical rubbish like “Robots need love too / They want to be loved by you” -- oh, so cute, he’s singing about robots, and being so cute! It’s disgusting. It was hard to believe this was the same Mangan. (Side note: there actually is another Dan Mangan who has released a handful of instrumental dance tunes through Trojan Records, but I digress).
The only saving grace for me (at the time) was “Road Regrets”, with its poignant phrases during the wonderfully composed stop/start refrain, “It’s a shame / It’s a crying shame / And ain’t it always the way / That takes you back to / From where it is you came”, slowing down only to retain speed into the groove, as if pausing for just a moment to give you the chance to glimpse the beauty of the tune. The song is great, and I exhausted my pleasure of it and quickly set the album aside, never to listen to it again. Until this review.
For those of you unfamiliar with Canadian music and how the grain of its musical voice emerges through various geographical locations, there is an almost imperceptible nuanced distinction between the soul of the west and the often pretentious quirk of Toronto. I’ve never lived in Vancouver, but it’s clear that the folk/pop/rock coming out of the west is focused on the yearn of its instruments, as if these artists are bellowing a slow dry call into the Pacific Ocean in hopes of purging themselves. There’s little self-consciousness, there is quite often a touching soulful folk/blues twang to the sway of the music, and there is this impression that you are overhearing someone isolated by the coast, singing as the waves crash against the rock. This, of course, is not a hard and fast rule, but musicologically speaking, the aesthetic of most genre pieces from western Canada operate in a very similar fashion.
And so, somewhere between 2005’s Postcards and Daydreaming and 2009’s Nice, Nice, Very Nice, Dan Mangan picked up and moved to Toronto -- the most self-righteous and pretentious music community this side of the Great North. Trust me, I have first-hand experience here, and it’s not pretty save for some near and dear exceptions. The move is evident in Mangan’s second release. It's an album that does get better in time, just not that much better. While the musicianship has clearly progressed, the show is more elaborate, and it’s evident that Mangan has set out to impress. Mangan has written on his website that Postcards was really an attempt to see if he could author an entire album. It was an experiment to find out if he had the strong-willed determination to see a project through to the end. Because of the lack of attention on the music itself, he feels it was a little misguided and lost. Unfortunately, what Mangan fails to recognize is that it is the imprudence of Postcards that gives it its magnificent charm. One need only listen to “Journal of a Narcoleptic” to understand this.
For Mangan, Nice, Nice, Very Nice is his much more calculated and affected take on the long player, and while it isn’t all dismissible, it’s hard to endear yourself to Mangan when he’s singing about robots needing love, coffee sweats, indie queens, shout outs to Elvis and Tina Turner, and the variety of über-cool apathetic hipster content that passes for introspection these days. Take, for instance, “The Indie Queens Are Waiting”, where he sings: “I’ll be waking / Are you watching me? / Are you watching / Are you? / Are you watching? / Or just waiting to see / That your days are numbered / ’Cause my days are numbered too / Are we cool now? / Are we cool?”. While Mangan might be asking for amicability in that line, one would hope that the irony is not lost.
The most salvageable thing on Nice, Nice, Very Nice is the music. Once you tune out lines like “I don’t want to be a pioneer / A singer sings a sad song when he’s sad / But honey all these years i’ve been upset / I’ve slowly turned the kind of blue that keeps your jeans dry” and zero in on the wonderful compositions that dominate this record, songs like “Road Regrets”, “You Silly Git”, and “Fair Verona” (a definite highlight) suddenly come alive. It’s disappointing that the lyrics strip so much from this otherwise fine album. Mangan has been receiving some massive recognition for this record -- nominated for the 2010 Polaris Music Prize, rave reviews that cannot stop gushing over how beautifully crafted this record is, and so on in that fashion. It all may be well deserved, and if this reviewer had not been previously spoiled with the graces of Mangan’s debut release, I would probably be singing the praises of Nice as well, but unfortunately this is not the case. It’s doubtful that Mangan will return to the auspicious beginnings of Postcards after such luminescent attention. Which can only mean that we are in store for more of the same as Nice, Nice, Very Nice: not entirely unpleasant, just not his best. Mangan has definitely tapped into the ever-expanding “niche” folk market that eats this stuff up, and although Mangan might say he doesn’t want to be a pioneer, it seems like that's what he's aiming for.