Preoccupations is a battlefield survey from the struggle against internal and external impediments that encroach upon life and health.
The phenomenon of the “difficult second album” doesn’t always have to take the form of a sophomore slump. The concept can be applied in different ways. An artist’s second effort might not be an easy listen, or it might have been a struggle to make. Preoccupations comes at it from a third angle: a record created in the face of outside adversities.
Since the release of their previous self-titled album under their previous name, singer/bassist Matt Flegel, drummer Mike Wallace, and guitarists Daniel Christiansen and Scott Munro, have migrated to cities both smaller and larger than the band’s hometown of Calgary. Life happened, relationships were strained. Geographical and interpersonal dislocation are both rich sources of inspirational fuel, but they only produce if there’s enough stability left over to guide it all to fruition. That Flegel and Wallace chose to press on together in the first place, after the dissolution of their former band, Women, was commendable enough.
Preoccupations is a battlefield survey from the struggle against internal and external impediments that encroach upon life and health. The enemies and their victims are directly named: “Anxiety”, “Monotony”, “Fever”, “Memory”, “Sense”. From their first cassette release to Viet Cong, the sense of unease in Preoccupations’ music has been gradually notched up, and here they address that feeling outright. “I'm spinning in a vacuum/Deteriorating to great acclaim/Help has fallen by the wayside/Nowhere near to finding better ways to be,” Flegel declares with a drained voice. Barbed and persistent, charging on lead feet and punching with brass knuckles, “Anxiety” sets the tone with blunt candor.
Frequently in two places at once, when the album zigs it also zags. Preoccupations doesn’t really defy expectations as much as it taps them on one shoulder and sneaks behind the other. At times it feels like the band were actively trying to make a more challenging record than their debut but accidentally made a more accessible one. In other places it is impossible to tell if an opportunity was missed or purposefully left on the shelf.
The first half of the album is their finest side to date. “Monotony” lands perfectly between the Psychedelic Furs and Echo and the Bunnymen, as Flegel grapples with the same stagnancy that Ian Curtis railed against on Joy Division’s “Digital”. Then it runs headfirst into “Zodiac” and its stereo panning panic, sinking in to sonic undercurrents. Capping it off with two exclamation points and an ellipsis, “Memory” turns Viet Cong’s “Death” on its head. Another showstopper over ten minutes in length, but this time delivered smack in the center of it all, lacing together three distinct sections and moods, with Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, etc.) joining in on vocals for the gloriously up-down-beat New Order-ish revelry in the middle.
Rising out of interstitial mist much like its counterpart, the second half of Preoccupations is in some ways the more elusive side. “We're throwing caution to the wind/We are consistent in our flaws/Predictably, we have no goals/Incapable of abstract thoughts”, claims Flegel on “Degraded”, which begins like a manifesto for self-depreciating anarchists before revealing itself to be an indictment of a relationship in sour stasis. “Sense” and “Forbidden” are an even slipperier riddle. The two tracks have a joint running time of two and a half minutes and a total of three distinct sections that could easily stretch out and latch arms to form a counterpoint to “Memory”. The psych-garage fade-out of “Forbidden” is the one place in which the album feels stunted.
It’s a rare debatable decision -- and perhaps they’ll stretch that fade out in a live setting -- on a record that otherwise reaps reward from the absence of surety. Preoccupations makes strides to shore up Preoccupations’ identity without losing the crucial spontaneity of their debut.