The fourth long-player from inaugural Polaris Prize winner Patrick Watson is full of dark melancholy and a sense of the downtrodden, as though the Montreal multi-instrumentalist and his band is reacting to some stinging criticism the last album, Wooden Arms, received.
The career of Montreal multi-instrumentalist Patrick Watson has endured its share of ups and downs. On the upside, his sophomore album, 2006’s Close to Paradise, won the inaugural Polaris Prize, which surprised quite a few Canadian music industry observers, and placed him and his band in the same lauded plateau as future winners Fucked Up, Owen Pallett (as Final Fantasy) and Arcade Fire. There have been setbacks, too, though. The follow-up album, 2009’s Wooden Arms, memorably got hammered in at least one quarter: Pitchfork’s Eric Harvey assigned the album a woeful 3.3 rating (which, in this humble critic’s opinion, was a bit harsh; it’s actually a pretty good album, in my estimation, full of a few memorable and hummable songs) and kind of took the artist to task for writing and including a song on the album called "Where the Wild Things Are", which had been sent to Spike Jonze, who was at the time adapting a film on the famous bedside children’s book, on a bit of a lark. That review is worth mentioning because, based on the opening of Patrick Watson’s fourth long-player, Adventures in Your Own Backyard, which was recorded in Watson’s apartment, it sounds as though the artist is smarting and sulking as a result of that particularly overbearing piece of criticism.
The opening song, "Lighthouse", is sullen and depressive with Watson’s vocals earnestly rubbing against a piano with the damper pedal pushed right to the floor. You listen to it, and wonder if Watson needs some Prozac. It isn’t until the final moments of the song that it blossoms into something pulled out of Western movie, full of panoramic wonder. "Blackwind", which follows, is a little more smug, with plucked violins and a jangly mandolin, but there’s still a permeating feeling of blackness to the proceedings. Perhaps this might be reading too much into things, but it’s as though Watson is reacting to this one particular piece of criticism by withdrawing completely into himself. And why not? Getting a diss from the music website that is the de facto tastemaker for all things indie has got to sting.
In any respect, given Adventures in Your Own Backyard’s homespun nature, there’s a bit of low fidelity to this particular disc -- which is striking considering that its Watson’s first album for noted UK indie label Domino Records. You can clearly hear tape hiss on a number of tracks, particularly on the openings of "Lighthouse" and "Step Out for a While", which gives the recording a bit of a sparse, intimate quality. I’ve seen one review online of the album that alludes to a voyeuristic nature of the record, and that would be an accurate assessment: with Adventures in Your Own Backyard, it feels as though we’re looking into and peering down on Watson’s very own backyard (or, at least, living room space). In that sense, the album could be said to be Watson’s stab at increasing his own authenticity, a trait that he wasn’t exactly lacking in on previous releases. Put another way, you wonder if the record is an attempt to take his detractors to task and prove his mettle at creating lush, wondrous soundscapes, that he wants to be taken seriously -- or even more seriously, considering the big Polaris win -- by retreating into a gauzy sound that is often lauded and praised by critics for having more feeling and heart. Despite this, though, gone is the feeling of wistfulness found on Close to Paradise and some of the clang of the percussiveness of Wooden Arms, and its replacement is a deep, dark hole that peers down into the psyche.
If Adventures in Your Own Backyard has any specific weakness, it’s that there’s nothing on the album that is instantly and as undeniably catchy here as "Luscious Life" from Close to Paradise or even "Beijing" from Wooden Arms -- the songs all congeal into a massive whole without offering anything in way of the shape or form of a standout track. And the record is a bit of a woeful dose of melancholia, without much in the way of the hopeful sound that is offered on previous albums. In fact, in some respects, one can say that Adventures in Your Own Backyard isn’t so much a departure of the Patrick Watson sound than a further piece of marinade in some of the bleaker moments of his cabaret style of indie pop. After four albums of essentially the same sound, with subtle variations, the formula is starting to wear a bit thin. I’m not sure which direction Watson would have to point himself and his band in to rectify this (maybe make a techno album?): it’s just that there’s a permeating feeling that if you’ve heard one Patrick Watson album, you have heard them all, even if Adventures in Your Own Backyard offers some subtleties and a slight change in approach and forebodingness.
Still, it is enjoyable on its own terms, and the expectation of knowing pretty much what you’re going to get with a Patrick Watson long player does offer its charms. And the album does work as a coherent whole, with a consistent sonic approach. In other words, Adventures in Your Own Backyard is hardly going to disappoint long-time fans, and may even rightfully earn Patrick Watson some new ones. The record is hardly going to light the world afire with anything remotely adventurous, to cop from the album title, but it is a pretty rigid and solid affair that is worth checking out if you’ve already liked what you’ve heard from the artist, and is an agreeable starting point for those new to the gemlike quality of Patrick Watson’s muse -- critics be damned. Adventures in Your Own Backyard may see its creator sucking on a gigantic lemon, but it’s still kind of beautiful to hear anyway.