Canadian Del Barber sings with a slow drawl that, in combination with the lyrics, suggests the benefits of a humble life. One might imagine all that one needs is the sounds and sights of nature and a true lover to be happy. That’s easy to believe, but experience shows that is not true. Desire in all forms is more complicated. Unlike Ben Franklin, whose aphorisms offered succinct wisdom, the ones Barber offers in his Almanac are more like strawmen. They are meant to be challenged. The implication is that one has to learn to distinguish pithy falsehoods from the truth to gain true knowledge. Don’t believe the lies disguised as simple truths. The best things in life aren’t always free.
For example, he notes there’s a fence around the church, and it’s not to keep the parishioners locked in. Shouldn’t places of worship be more inviting? What Barber discovers as hypocrisy others see as reality. Theft and vandalism are actual problems. In the song “Even God Almighty”, he restates the obvious about the failings of organized religion. It’s easy for him to be critical, but all he can offer is narcissism as a replacement. This is just to say that admitting one stole the plums from the icebox isn’t any better than lifting them in the first place, as the famous William Carlos Williams’ poem suggests. Temptation is just one of many obstacles to living a good life.
The Canadian singer-songwriter claims he has “Something to Say”. In some songs like “I Told You So”, he seems to be only talking to himself. He may croon in a self-assured way, but it is clear that no one is listening to the narrator. This song illustrates what happens when one can’t let go of another person, idea, or thing. What begins as a positive can turn into something grotesque.
Barber sings plain tales about people and places as if they are special just because of his connections to them. He unself-consciously cites another who says, “You can call a spade a spade / But the truth around here / Is a spade is just a shovel” as if this is hard-earned wisdom. But the moral of his tale implies the opposite, how special the person who doesn’t seem outwardly bright can be. One can be too smart; sometimes, it is wiser not to know all. However, this merely suggests a different type of intelligence is needed rather than the benefit of not knowing.
Barber hails from Manitoba, and his music has a sense of open outdoor spaces and open-mindedness. That’s true about the ranch landscapes and his attitudes toward other people. For example, “One Good Year” examines the difficult life of the farmer (“profits thinner than a supermodel,” he notes). In “Bulls”, he praises a pair of hard-working women of the prairie willing to shoot the wolf at the door.
It takes chutzpah (in a good way!) to name a song about a pair of lesbians as “Bulls” (re: dykes). Barber’s sense of humor and wordplay reveals how well-crafted his material is. His willingness to be funny shows his confidence in sensitive topics. Barber’s clearly unbiased against queer people. In another song, “Me and Jim”, he sings of unrequited love from a male/male perspective with understanding and empathy. He identifies with rather than judges others. This is true even in the case of murder. One never knows what a person is capable of unless one has been in someone else’s shoes (as in “Jared”).
Almanac is the kind of record that can be misunderstood if listened to too quickly. Barber offers homilies only to expose their inherent contradictions. He’s not a naysayer—sometimes his adages hold up—but one who understands the importance of questioning received wisdom.