Acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter's ambitious latest makes a good case for an artist recognizing their limitations.
Dan Mangan’s best song, “Road Regrets”, was an endearingly straightforward bit of melodic folk-rock, rich with the romantically cynical posturing of a prematurely grizzled young troubadour, that occasional by-the-book example of a sturdy pop/rock formula that actually makes you glad that someone still reads. Imagine hearing it over the din of crowd noise and breaking bottles in a small, smoky Canadian bar as you sway along, beer in hand, to its square, stomping rhythm and you’ve captured it in its ideal setting. Its accompanying album, Nice Nice Very Nice, was, for the most part, similarly tuneful and likable, winning a fair bit of acclaim in Mangan’s native Canada upon its release in 2009, enough that indie stalwart Arts & Crafts picked it up for international release a year later. A spot on the 2010 shortlist for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize further cemented Mangan’s reputation as one of the country’s most promising new artists.
For his follow up, Oh Fortune, Dan Mangan appears to have taken this success as a spur to more grandiose designs. The album opens with an overture-like introduction that moves into a string-laden waltz by the time Mangan’s bruised, plainspoken voice makes its first appearance. Things only get even more ornate from there. A quick glance at the album credits confirms the presence of a veritable army of musicians here -- note that Oh Fortune employs the use of individual contributors on French horn, trumpet, clarinet, viola, saxophone, cello, trombone, organ, flute and violin in addition to Mangan’s own regular four-piece band. We are a long way from the simple, nearly archetypical pleasures of “Road Regrets” here.
As jarring as it is, though, Oh Fortune could be said to represent a perfectly logical next step for Mangan. This kind of lushly orchestrated, large-scale rock album has plenty of contemporary precedent, particularly in light of Arcade Fire’s recent slew of honors (this year’s Polaris Prize included) for The Suburbs. Mangan clearly had some of his more ambitious peers in mind on this album, particularly on songs like “How Darwinian”, with its spacious Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-like atmosphere, or “Post-War Blues”, which plays almost like a pastiche of the sprawling guitar anthems of Titus Andronicus. Album centerpiece “Starts With Them, Ends With Us” even borrows from multiple sonic touchstones at once, beginning with something unmistakably resembling Arcade Fire’s brand of rumbling, widescreen drama before exploding into a grand horn crescendo of the sort that Bright Eyes occasionally indulged in on its more far-reaching recordings.
Yet for all of its exotic flourishes, Oh Fortune is a curiously lifeless record melodically. Mangan rarely steps beyond the languorous mid-tempo that he seems locked into here, with most of the songs coming off sounding pretty much the same, whether they’re stripped down to the acoustic bare bones of “Leaves, Trees, Forest” or surrounded with the instrumental flurries of “Jeopardy”. When he finally lets loose with a seething guitar on the ragged “Rows of Houses” towards the end of the record, it is only notable for how anomalous it feels, an all-too-brief reprieve from the overall stuffiness of the whole enterprise.
This mismatch between grand musical visions and melodic inertia is mirrored in the lyrics. With texts that make vague but frequent reference to war and death, Oh Fortune appears to want to make some kind of grand statement, but about what? Mangan’s words on the album runs the gamut from trite non-observations (“The birds use their wings / where do they go? / People want to know / Some say Heaven, some say Mexico”) to repetitious banalities (“Is it meaningful to be angry? / Who’s angry? / Are you angry? / Why do I get the feeling you might be angry? / What is anger?”), making the album’s attempted narrative not only unclear, but also crushingly tedious. If there is any evidence of the talent hinted at previously on display here, it comes from only the album’s noble but failed attempts at overreach, the confidence that comes from early success and pushes an artist, perhaps prematurely, toward the furthest reaches of their abilities. For this particular moment, though, Oh Fortune reveals that Mangan is still a lightweight.