Joel Plaskett: Park Avenue Sobriety Test

These blues are cast as irrational, but also related to the pressures of aging; awareness of death, what can manifest itself as mid-life crisis.
Joel Plaskett
Park Avenue Sobriety Test

Joel Plaskett’s first solo album was called In Need of Medical Attention. This time, on his fourth (though really his eighth, at least, under some form of his name), he’s in need of something too — something that is sometimes hard for him to grasp. The brief opening track depicts it as the blues. It also casts those blues as irrational, but related to the internal pressures of getting older; awareness of death, the sort that can manifest itself as the prototypical mid-life crisis. “I’m not down on my luck or behind on my dues / I’ve got some kind of f**ked up / illegitimate blues”.

That song is the perfect segue into the album’s most stirring look back at the days of yore; specifically,at the hard-travelling, restless life of a young indie-rock band. A young Nova Scotian indie-rock band called Thrush Hermit (1992-1999). “On a Dime” is rife with fiddle that gives it a Celtic folk feel, An overly rosy picture of good times, the song has one indelible image that appeals greatly to the ‘90s indie fan in me: “standing out in the cold / singing Those Bastard Souls / no I don’t want to leave this behind”. That last sentiment is the important one here, what makes this rosy look back really about longing in the present.

The blues on the album might be midlife-crisis-ish, but sometimes they’re not. Sometimes he sings about being down on his luck. Plaskett covers Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” (emphasizing the lyric “while we all share our sorrow with the poor”, suggesting he’s singing out of empathy more than autobiography) and follows it up with a song about being ‘Broke”. Though more overly about economic hardship than the rest of the album, the song feels like the emotional centerpiece of the album, capturing a feeling of confidence within a feeling of hopelessness. He’s broke but not broken, a cliché perhaps but delivered like it isn’t one, like no one’s felt it before. It’s also paired with verses about other people, making it function as social commentary even if the chorus standing alone seems autobiographical and fits with the album’s general feeling of existential crisis.

There’s slide guitar in that song, giving it a country twang. There’s an intentional acknowledgement of country and blues across the album, but not in a reverent way. It’s emblematic of the overall throughline of music fandom in Plaskett’s songs. “Broken Heart Songs” tackles this in a humorous way, with a running dialogue about the way tastes in genre change as we age.

The slapdash charm and wit of that song is a reminder that this is a Joel Plaskett album, not out of step with his previous albums even if it’s more sullen at times, more nostalgic much of the time. The last three songs present a class in how to turn worry and regret into goofiness and jokes, and the role catchy melodies play in that. “Song for Jersey” would lighten up any Hurricane Sandy tribute album, which it ostensibly seems written for. “The Park Avenue Sobriety Test” gets silly while also pointedly getting at one of the album’s main themes. It’s the moment when life slaps you in the face and makes you rethink things: “it’s the hole in the sky / when a young man dies / you just want to go to sleep.” The title compares it to a highway guardrail that wakes you out of drunken driving.

That song’s spunk and cheekiness recalls past singles like “Fashionable People” and “Tough Love”. So does this album’s “Alright/OK”, a bluesy, Plasketty, drunken riff that still plays on the themes of life’s stumbling blocks and how we get past them. That that song can sit comfortably with more serious ballads about heartbreak — waking up to, and getting past, life’s worst moments — means this is a Joel Plaskett album, a songwriter always working in these perhaps conflicting realms at the same time. Especially this time around.

RATING 7 / 10