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Interviews

"I Want to Feel Something Real": An Interview With St. Paul and the Broken Bones

Paul Janeway of St. Paul and the Broken Bones talks with PopMatters about the band's quick rise and the inspirations, faith, art, and business behind new album Sea of Noise.


St. Paul and the Broken Bones

Sea of Noise

Label: RECORDS / Columbia
US Release Date: 2016-09-09
UK Release Date: 2016-09-09
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In this year of consequential referenda and elections, many of the most thought-provoking albums have been ones that explored various sorts of personal and political polarization. Veteran acts in particular have excelled at communicating these cyclical themes with revitalized forms. See, for example, the pairing of loss with enlightenment on A Moon Shaped Pool, the subversive journalistic detachment of The Hope Six Demolition Project and theological fury of Showbread Is Showdead. These are uneasy albums for uneasy times.

For St. Paul and The Broken Bones, a newer band known largely for its horn-blaring good-time live act, there seems to be some risk involved in broaching such topicality. Since releasing their debut album Half the City in 2014, the group has undergone many shifts on the way to sophomore effort Sea of Noise. The quickly-recorded Half the City was a surprise hit, ushering the Birmingham, Alabama soul band to bigger stages, greater business opportunities, and the scrutiny that comes along with being so closely identified with a specific musical tradition. Fittingly, Sea of Noise is a set of songs about holding on to what's lasting amidst upheaval. In this PopMatters interview, front man Paul Janeway discusses the changes, debates, inspirations, and challenges involved with album number two.

Looking back on Half the City, Janeway says, "I didn’t know my voice. That was the first time I’d ever really done any professional recording with my voice. I’ve had to learn, you’ve got to be more nuanced. Going big all the time doesn’t always mean good, you know?" He also says "the general lyrical direction" is another area in which the group has evolved. "I wanted to get away -- and it was just kind of where my instinct was taking me -- I wanted to get away from the standard heartbreak, loneliness, hey, happy times. I wanted to really dig deeper and just add a little more depth at least lyrically than your standard, ‘oh this guy’s job is to sing well’.

"I wanted to expand that and artistically, it’s just exploring that more, being open to explore and not so set in your ways. That’s a battle, because when you have success with a debut record it’s easy to kind of go, well, we can just play it safe and do the same thing. You battle that. Cause to me it’s still somewhat of an art. From one album to the next album, we are not a band that’s going to write the same album every time. It’s not in our DNA. I feel like you take people on a journey with you. That’s kind of the point for us, even on songs."

Having recently returned from a European tour, Janeway mentions two artifacts of history that resonate, indirectly and directly, through Sea of Noise. The first is The Death of Marat, which Janeway visited up close at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. "It’s one of my all-time favorite paintings," he says. "I got to see that, which was pretty spectacular." The second is a quotation from Winston Churchill, who in his memoirs wrote that Harry Hopkins was "a crumbling lighthouse from which there shone the beams that led great fleets to harbour." On Sea of Noise, "Crumbling Light Posts" is a recurring theme that unifies the album.

"I always thought that was really interesting imagery. In a lot of senses, I feel like -- you know, you talk about making an album. Just in that sense you feel like, is this dying or crumbling hope of light and it’s falling into this sea of noise, which is, you know, the other part of it. That can represent all sorts of things. You can get as deep as you want to go, go as shallow as you want to go, and I think that’s kind of the significance of being hopeful but feeling like that’s slowly being drained out of us, drained out of me, how I look at the landscape of things. That’s kind of a common theme throughout the record.”

Lyrics from new song “Waves” typify the crumbling hope of Sea of Noise: “All the people they are praying but there ain’t love no more / just bullets and hate”. Bullets and guns appear throughout the album, which assesses the state of the family or nation or globe at various points as “midnight”, “hell”, and “a black hole”. I ask Janeway if he considered the possibility that by making an album so glum in its concept, he might magnify the distress that inspired the songs.

He answers, with a perceptive laugh, “That’s the thing. That’s the issue that you fight. It’s not a glimmer of hope. There’s not a lot of hope on it. It's me, talking about, sifting through this kind of Southern identity, and it is what it is -- you kind of come to terms with who you are, where you are, and you just kind of move on from there. You might get to the destination and be disappointed, but it’s really the journey that you should try to enjoy and really relish that.”

While Janeway readily admits that political and spiritual strife are “big subjects to tackle”, he doesn’t see his exploration of these issues as being necessarily fixed to the present moment. “I think that’s what was really interesting is that, I’m a big non-fiction reader, and my wife teaches a class about human rights and philosophy and a bunch of stuff, and what you realize is that some of the past looks a little bit like the future. It’s an interesting thing that, though there are things that are better, some things are worse. To me it’s not necessarily this overly political or faith-searching thing; it’s really just sifting through all of that for me, kind of a perspective.”

Another goal the singer identifies is “wanting to get away and wanting to try and find some sort of realness”, which is an aim directly stated in a repeated phrase on “Sanctify”: “Oh but I want to feel something real.” What most distinguishes the album’s coming to terms, its questioning, is that there are few answers offered or conclusions reached by the time the music ends.

Listening to the album, and speaking with Janeway about it, creates an impression that the “sifting” is still in progress. “It’s weird. I didn’t write the record going, we’re going to write a semi-political, or faith-based struggle, it was sifting through all that and I think for some reason it might resonate a little bit with modern times, which is interesting. I know there’s something to be said. I just don’t know what. I don’t think it’s for me to know what. I’m working through that.”

“Burning Rome”, one of the more pointedly personal songs on the album, required a translation, of sorts, by Janeway for the other members of the band. “That was a difficult song to get to because I think the guys were like, this is kind of a standard ballad. I was like, ‘yeah not really’ just because of the subject matter. Then once I told everybody where I was headed, it was kind of a prayer.” The song, which begins with the question, “Where’d you go my sweet devotion?” is about the singer’s withdrawal from the religious activities that were so central to his early life.

He explains, “When I look at my youth, especially where I’m from -- you know, you’re from the South -- you know that the church is typically the epicenter of all social activity in a small town. When I let go of that I felt like I was destroying my life. It was just the image of burning Rome. I did. Then you realize, well, no, faith can’t be defined by that. It’s not defined by that for me. I think the destruction of that was actually what built me up and made me really realize, what do you believe? It explores that. That’s a tough song for me. It’s going to be a tough song for me.”

I ask if part of what makes the song tough is the thought of its reception. “That was what was so difficult about this record,” he says. “It dug deeper. I’m proud of it, obviously, very proud of it. But it’s not one of those records that I feel like, lyrically at least, I didn’t play it safe. So there are elements that scare me that it might ruin -- you know, my Mom and Dad might be asking me a lot of questions.”

One of the questions such lyrical content creates is how decisively Janeway has turned aside from his faith. For a point of comparison, I bring up David Bazan’s 2009 album Curse Your Branches, which marked the former Pedro the Lion singer’s turn away from Christianity and conversion to agnosticism -- a period the music press widely referred to as his “break-up” with God. Janeway says Sea of Noise and its “sifting” is not that conclusive.

“It’s not. It’s complicated. It’s a very complicated thing for me, even to this day. So it’s hard for me to go, yeah, breaking up, and have that definitive line that I jump over. It’s just not that way for me. It’s kind of an exploration. You lay it on the table. Some people are like, ‘maybe you shouldn’t even explain the songs’. I don’t think that’s going to hurt the meaning for other people. Our style of music, there are going to be people who have no clue what I’m talking about, and just dance to it. And there are going to be people that really pay attention. I just think I’ve laid it out there and let it fall as it may.”

Because the album is so cohesively structured and forthright in its subject matter, Janeway says, “I didn’t like … releasing singles for this record. You’re not hearing it in context. You’re hearing it just as a single entity. That’s not really how it was designed. We’re still in the album-making business. I know that this is a singles-driven market, but that’s not how I view it. The album is the whole of the work and it needs to be listened to as the whole of the work. That’s how we designed it. That’s on purpose. If people think that’s archaic… But I still think there are people out there that want that. They’re just -- most of them are not fifteen years old.”

One increasingly common way for artists to influence the way their albums are experienced is the surprise release, in which an entire album is rolled out at once. St. Paul and The Broken Bones “debated that” but concluded “we just don’t have that kind of profile.” The singer says, “That’s the thing. I worried because I thought if we do something like that, we’re just not this huge band. We’re still building a lot and I was also worried about people’s reaction to this record a little bit. I didn’t know if people were going to like it. You kind of want to prepare people.”

Janeway figures the group’s new label, RECORDS, might still be getting accustomed to them. “I’m not exactly sure what this new label thought they were getting. I think maybe they thought they were getting, like, Adele or something like that. Little did they know that’s not anything close to what they are getting.”

I ask about his experiences with the business of music, as the band has transitioned away from Single Lock Records and onto bigger, but less familiar, ground. “I don’t know, for me as far as the business side, it opens your eyes. I mean there are some things… Single Lock, I love those guys. That’s family. It really is. Those folks are family. It’s just we grew so quickly, so fast, that it got hard. You really have to start having hard conversations. And I hated it. I hated it because that’s family. So we debated so many things and we debated going fully independent, just making our own label and doing it that way. We thought really hard about that.

“This label we’re on now is associated with our publishing company, Songs. We kind of thought, alright well, we don’t really want to go big in the States so we need to kind of expand the reach overseas. So they got us hooked up with Columbia overseas, so that was part of it. To me, as long as we get to make the music we want to make, which that’s how it’s written, you know, I don’t really care. Now if someone is sitting there and breathing down your back and … they have creative control, then we have an issue. We like the relationship, it seemed like it was a good fit, and you know, we go from there.”

Janeway says that despite the rising profile of the band, he hasn’t given into any significant pressure to conform to a certain industry-approved image, but at times “moral questions” do arise. “If you were going to make a lead singer, he probably wouldn’t look like me. That’s just the way it is. I am who I am. I’m going to grow from there. So if people don’t like how we do things or the way we do things, it’s kind of like, well, too bad. That’s just who we are. So that’s been hard to navigate.

“Radio’s the worst. Because radio, you kind of have to kiss ass a little bit. And you’re like, ‘how much ass do you kiss?’ There are always real moral questions. This is still an art form to me. I don’t look at this as a business. I take care of the business side and I have no problem talking about it but ... the point is, write great music, play great shows. That’s it.”

The arrangement of voices and instruments on Sea of Noise conveys the duality and conflicts that exist in the lyrics. For example, the disquieting “Waves” considers abandoning hope and surrendering to hell, but then a concluding gospel section turns the dire mood around. Janeway describes that aspect of the song: “I used this philosophy, when opera first got introduced there was this whole philosophy that the choirs and voices together were the voices of angels and of divinity. Solo was more about the human struggle. You heard someone sing about themselves and it just kind of tore at your heart. The choir is throughout the record.

“That was kind of the idea, is that the solo, by myself, is kind of the human struggle but the divinity and real spiritual stuff is when the choir kicks in. I use that throughout the whole record. That song’s a prime example, because the choir comes out of nowhere. We had a big debate about that. Because the guys are like, should we maybe just bring them in a little bit? I was like no; I want it to be a surprise. I wanted to catch people off guard a little. Because you hear the song, and you go, ‘oh man this is kind of sad’, and then they come in and it’s not so bad.”

Yet another noteworthy change on Sea of Noise, compared to Half the City, is the presence of strings. The group, Janeway says, wanted the album “to be more orchestral” and “wanted the arrangements to be really thought out.” To that end, “The horns don’t sound like a horn band in a lot of the stuff. It sounds more orchestral. There's obviously some horn band stuff, but we wanted to use the horns more that way on this record than say a standard Stax or soul thing. So there were parts where the strings just fit.” Joining the group to make this happen was Lester Snell, whose experience Janeway notes includes working “with Isaac Hayes and all of these great Memphis artists. We wondered if Lester would be interested, and he did it and he did a phenomenal job.”

As to what the strings add to the music, Janeway declares, “I love strings, the violin and cello, they just make me weep. To put those on the record -- a song like “I’ll Be Your Woman” -- that song with those strings, it just makes it. We thought about horns. Live, we probably will do horns, because we can’t afford to bring strings with us everywhere. But it just fit. It kind of gives it that darker tone, brings a little bit of heartache and warmth in there. It’s hard to get the warmth at times.”

Decisions like the choice to introduce such new compositional elements correspond to the motion of growing into the industry and further defining the identity of St. Paul and The Broken Bones. “That was our whole goal with album two,” Janeway says, “was to not lose ourselves. You know, we are who we are, but really to expand the musical palette. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. We’re still very much rooted in R&B but some of it might be a little more modern than say the '60s or something like that. There are songs that have zero horns on them. And trust me -- that was a point of contention. You know, when you have horns in the band. But we realized we’re going to treat live differently than the album, and that’s what we did.”

For Janeway, the determination to not lose himself, and the search for what’s real, extends beyond the political, spiritual, and commercial concerns to the day-to-day lifestyle he enjoys as a member of St. Paul and The Broken Bones. “A lot of it’s just searching for something real, something with substance. I think that’s my biggest fear in my life in general, especially with what I do. Because it’s not real life. You know what I mean? I go to the venue and there’s food and there’s people that go get stuff. For me. That’s not real life.

“That’s not real,” he reiterates. “That’s the business that we do. It doesn’t feel real to me at times. So in my life, that search can get a little muddled. You’re like, is this real? We have all this social media. I’m sure you know people who seem happily married on their Instagram and they get divorced a year later. We’ve created this thing, this wall and there’s no substance anymore. People create this image. The search for beyond that has gotten a little more difficult.”

For an R&B act like St. Paul and The Broken Bones, the concept of authenticity presents a particular challenge, which is the defensive position against the charge of cultural appropriation. While the group has mostly avoided being tagged with the label, critical perspectives of that sort do appear in blogs and YouTube comment sections of the band’s performance videos. This is an undoubtedly touchy subject, as a Salon interview with Daryl Hall vividly illustrated earlier this year.

Janeway is candid in his response. “That is the biggest thing that hits me so hard, because it’s difficult to navigate. The problem is I sound the way I sound. If you say, hey, he was influenced by black music when he was young, and so he’s emulating that … maybe? You know? I’ve talked with a few of my black friends about this. What are we doing? Is it inherently racist? One of my friends was like, ‘no, the thing is, you’re from the South, you grew up on the music, you can’t help that. Who’s to say cultural appropriation is so bad, anyway?’

“I mean if that’s the case, then you would have to say the Beatles were cultural appropriation, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, all of these people would be considered cultural appropriation. If that’s the case, it’s been a long line of that. For me, it’s a personal thing. I think if you acknowledge what you came from, what you were listening to, and you pay respect to that, I don’t think it’s coming from a negative space.”

What complicates even a well-intended continuation of musical/cultural tradition, Janeway observes, is that “there are legit race issues in this country". But he also points out an incongruent source voicing the “legit” problems. “You know who tells me about cultural appropriation most of the time?” he asks, and then answers, “Some white people. And I’m like, well who are you to say that? Because I think the issue is, it’s some white guy going, ‘oh I know what it’s like’ to be relevant. No, you don’t. You don’t know what it’s like to be black in this country, and neither do I.

“There are big issues out there. There are. That’s what blows my mind. Now if any of my friends who are black were like, 'hey, Paul what I think you’re doing is inherently wrong’, I would have a conversation about that. But that doesn’t happen. We have fans that are black. It’s not a situation like that. But it burns me up because we’re from Birmingham. So there is a long, sad history in Birmingham with racist shit.” Asserting his hometown bona fides, Janeway wonders, “How else do you want me to sound? What do you want me to sing, bluegrass? So we stay in our little boxes? We don’t do anything different? No one works that way…

“If you’re going to put that label on stuff, that’s a slippery slope. For us, we come from the South, I mean, are the Swampers, are they culturally appropriating? Are we influenced by Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke? Absolutely, but we’re also influenced by David Bowie and so many other things. Eddie Hinton. There are so many influences in music now that it’s so hard to be like, ‘well you’ve got to stay in this little corner here’. No, man, that’s just not how music works … Prince was influenced by Joni Mitchell. I think that’s what’s beautiful about music. I think that’s the beauty of music, is that it brings a lot of people together.”

Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke


69. Arcade Fire - "Creature Comfort"

This is a big, bold statement of intent from Arcade Fire. There is a clear and admirable desire for the band not to spend too long in the same space and to mine their DNA to reinvigorate themselves. The big synths and angular new wave of early '80s the Cure sound fresh and like nothing the band has done before. Despite the retro stylings, the subject matter is refreshingly current as the group deal with the quest for personal validation from family, friends, and strangers, the anxieties of negative body image and the relentless pursuit of fame at the expense of everything else. The band cleverly offer a metaphorical panacea for all of these ills in the form of "Creature Comfort". Something to numb the pain. This is a song that leaves you anything but anesthetized. - Paul Carr


68. Alt-J - "In Cold Blood"

As far as songs about murders at pool parties go, "In Cold Blood" is actually pretty heady. In true alt-J fashion, it's hard to tell what's a red herring and what's actually relevant to the song, but as with the best songs, it doesn't particularly matter when it's this catchy. The random snippets of binary code, the allusion to C.S. Lewis' Caspian, the extended coda of "La la la"s, these are diversions from the subject at hand, perhaps because the gravity of the matter would make for too heavy a song, perhaps because alt-J delights in being obtuse. Still, with imagery as vivid as "Hair the way the sun really wants it to be" and "Lifeless back slaps the surface of the pool", it is still appropriately shocking, and yet morbidly catchy, particularly once the horns kick in. It makes you feel guilty for enjoying it, which is probably just perfect as far as alt-J is concerned. - Mike Schiller


67. The Mynabirds - "Golden Age"

The transition from 2016 to 2017 needed an elegy, an understated anthem of disillusionment and sorrow, and this is it. With its staid piano melody and Laura Burhenn's velvet vocals, the song taps into the sucker-punch trauma of feeling like social progress's trajectory was a bait-and-switch that made the eventual collapse that more crushing. The lyrics read as a litany of topical grief — the deaths of Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, worsening climate change, rampant police brutality, the severing of family ties amid political lines, and, presciently considering when it was written, the emboldening of American Nazism by Donald Trump's presidential election. Dour stuff, to be sure, yet Burhenn isn't ready to seal the mausoleum. Rather, "Golden Age" is the sound of an ideal beaten but unbroken, its swollen eye still focused on the future. It's a rail against complacency and surrender and offers needed comfort and warmth, while still being goosebumps-inducing in its call to arms. It might be a lofty comparison, but "Golden Age" is a spiritual successor to Lennon's "Imagine" in the current climate. - Cole Waterman


66. Sir Sly - "High"

The premise isn't too groundbreaking: a group of young indie poppers with hip haircuts singing about getting high. What sets Sir Sly's take on getting high apart from many others is how current it is. Sir Sly's "High" nails the mindset of many a millennial as the group sings about "wondering what peace would be like" - drugs as a means of escape from this very specific wave of global turmoil. On top of that, the chorus is mind-blowingly catchy, the beats enticing. This is a social statement you can dance to, an escapist earworm and a party anthem for our times. - Adriane Pontecorvo


65. Taylor Swift - "...Ready For It?"

The essence of pop music is saying the same things over and over again in slightly different ways. This is how life works too. We settle into routines and measure our lives by the degree to which those routines shift or are disrupted over time. Most of Taylor Swift's songs are about what happens when you think about romance the way songs and movies tell us to, but she never seems to run out of new ways to frame that experience.

Usually, it's a matter of melodies or words, but sometimes, it's also a matter of sound, of putting her compositions in an environment that's a little unstable. She does this on "...Ready for It?," which is the most sonically mischievous and audacious song she's released. Over a harsh, sneering rhythm track, Swift covers familiar ground--the rush of new love, the relationship between reality and fantasy--but it doesn't feel that way because the song has a few clever ideas it gets just right: a trio of distorted bass notes that begin and repeat throughout the song; and low-pitched, synthetic brass notes that hit during the pre-chorus. Both signal that something is different, that no matter how many times we fall in love, it will always feel new. - Mark Matousek


64. Carly Rae Jepsen - "Cut to the Feeling"

Nobody has cornered the effervescent side of North American pop music quite like Carly Rae Jepsen has in the past couple years. Arriving on the heels of 2015's triumphant Emotion, "Cut to the Feeling" continues that soaring momentum. Not a whit of the song is particularly groundbreaking; instead it is a classic formula executed to perfection, building from tense verses to a chorus that explodes like fireworks. Nolan Lambroza's production is shimmering and radiant, the perfect backdrop for Ms. Jepsen, who conveys the song's feeling of euphoria with her trademark charisma. It's the type of pop music that puts a smile on your face. - Adrien Begrand


63. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile - "Continental Breakfast"

At one point in "Continental Breakfast", Courtney holds up a video of "Kurt and Courtney", the chronicling of the relationship of lead singers Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, two of rock's greatest misfits. The synergy between Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett is less fraught; it's downright amicable. It's not difficult to fall in love with both songwriters as they bounce around their domestic lives, interacting with babies, children, and elders alike, with smiles the whole way through. If you don't find this video endearing, you probably don't have a soul. - Tristan Kneschke


62. Animal Collective - "Kinda Bonkers"

Animal Collective follow up last year's Painting With album with more of the same on new EP The Painters. Like much of their best work, "Kinda Bonkers" is bursting with ideas. Built on tabla percussion, see-saw keyboards and parallel vocals that bounce, ping and collide, the band throw everything they can in to see what cooks. All of these different ingredients are whipped up into a customary, trippy, psychedelic sponge. The whole thing is as irrepressible and energetic as you would expect, but it somehow feels more rounded. More straightforward and undemanding, never feeling like it might collapse under the weight of the hooks and melodies the band has crammed on every tier. - Paul Carr


61. ANOHNI - "Paradise"

ANOHNI's inimitable vocals are like a fixed quantity in her music, ensuring that most anything she sings retains an element of pained, graceful beauty no matter how harrowing or grisly the topic. "Paradise", another collaboration with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never following last year's HOPELESSNESS, pushes this principle to its limit. The track is a tortured dirge barely disguised as bass-heavy synthpop, a veil disintegrating at the seams. ANOHNI sings as one caught between global concerns and her own personal, particular pain, lamenting the solipsistic confines of being but a single "point of consciousness". Perhaps the paradise she evokes, a "world without end", is one where the boundaries of the self are dissolved altogether, opening the way for empathy. And yet any clear vision of that utopia is clouded amid the wailing electronics, making it clear that we'll have to contend with our own kaleidoscopes of pain for some time to come. - Andrew Dorsett

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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