Dan Boeckner is a rock god. If that sounds a little cheesy, a little ’80s rock charts, that’s part of the point. Boeckner wields both of his primary instruments — an abused guitar and that beautiful, strong, unhinged voice of his — with an enthusiasm and charisma that at once paradoxically recall the arena titans and punk heroes of the early ’70s and 1980s. In his other, more famous (and now potentially defunct) outfit, Wolf Parade, he provided the raw, heart-on-sleeve counterpart to Spencer Krug’s more baroque, synth-driven numbers — and though Krug often got most of the attention in Wolf Parade write-ups, Boeckner penned the strongest numbers on the band’s underrated later albums, At Mount Zoomer (2008) and EXPO 86 (2010). Onstage, Boeckner bounds about in sleeveless T’s, all tattoos and swagger, having a damn good time and making sure you do, too. They don’t make them like this anymore.
In his other project, Handsome Furs, Boeckner plays largely the same role. Here, he shares the stage with his wife, Alexei Perry, the band itself created as a way for the two lovers to collaborate and travel the world together. The band’s past two records, Plague Park (2007) and Face Control (2009), had Perry on tinny drum machines and synths, while Boeckner tore at his throat and guitar in equal measure. On its new album, Sound Kapital, the duo wrote all the material on keyboards. Boeckner fans could be forgiven for feeling some trepidation: what could a Boeckner album without guitars possibly sound like?
You can relax — Sound Kapital isn’t entirely without that instrument. But, per Boeckner and Perry’s claims, it does focus less on the axe and more on the percussive sounds of ’80s industrial and electronic music. Handsome Furs have always had a fetish for all things Eastern European; check past song titles like “Radio Kaliningrad” and “Nyet Spasiba”, as well as those decidedly lo-fi drum tracks and trebled-out guitar, sounds that could come straight out of a Romanian nightclub. Sound Kapital continues in that vein, moving the focus on to Boeckner’s lyrics, too. Songs here deal with the promise of exotic travel and the problems of repatriation once the vacation’s over.
The music itself does see a change without Boeckner’s guitar placed front and center. These tracks, as a whole, are less anthemic than his best material, more synth-oriented, often almost danceable. While that shift takes some getting used to, it is not unwelcome once Sound Kapital digs its significant hooks into your ears. Opener “When I Get Back” has Boeckner returning to his native land a changed man, for better or for worse, as Perry’s left hand punches out deep grooves and her right hits an almost bubbly synth melody. “Memories of the Future” sees Boeckner disparaging the nostalgia that, arguably, drives this entire project and its wanderlust — “I throw my hands to the sky / I let my memories go.” The track proves that he and Perry can turn a forward-looking outlook into just as much of a jam as a backward-looking one. “Serve the People” could be an indictment of Russian oligarchs and American corporatists alike, and it will get fists in the air in both countries. Early single “What About Us” turns the record’s most club-ready and retro banger into a New Order-esque heart-on-sleeve coda, with Boeckner singing, “Let’s stay in this evil little world / Break my heart” over and over again to somehow comforting, ethereal results.
These tracks all mark subtle differences for Handsome Furs, a small evolution in sound. Admittedly, though, Sound Kapital‘s most thrilling moments come when Boeckner relents and restrings his guitar. “Damage” builds to a sudden, thrilling spazz-out, while “Repatriated” uses his preternatural gift for melody to bring significant emotional heft to a song about frustration and, ultimately, hard-won acceptance of one’s outsider status. These guitar-driven songs stand out as highlights, but they don’t overshadow the rest of the record. Boeckner and Perry succeed in their experiment, wringing the same cathartic material out of their synth-driven approach as they did in their previous album-long anthems. These two have plenty more talent to give to us; pray for their marriage to last a long, long time.