“We’ve never tried this before,” one of the band members noted, soon picking up his acoustic guitar and gathering around a small fire pit outside of Kilby Court. The Most Serene Republic had just finished playing a show at the small venue just a few minutes prior, promoting their then-current album Population. It was December of 2007, the band in jackets and wool caps post-show, and due to one audience member’s suggestion, the group was now gathered around the long-since dormant fire hole, and with no preparation whatsoever, vocalists Adrian Jewett and Emma Ditchburn began singing “Proposition 61” in the cold winter air, the acoustic strums ringing in the stifled air and adding to what could only be described as an absolutely magical moment.
What seemed odd, however, was that the band hadn’t tried something like that before. In 2005, the Most Serene Republic got a bit of press for being the first act signed to the Canadian Arts & Crafts record label that had absolutely nothing to do with indie-rock supergroup Broken Social Scene or its various off-shoots. Their debut disc, Underwater Cinematographer, was an exciting mixture of thumping techno beats, indie-rock aesthetics, and lounge-y acoustic numbers peppered with a couple group shout-a-longs just for good measure. It was a fascinating little album, but things got a bit jumbled with their 2007 follow-up. Populations wasn’t a bad record by any means, but by abandoning electronic instruments almost entirely, the group wound up homogenizing their sound somewhat, resulting in an organic-sounding album that blurred together when played straight through, songs barely distinguishing themselves from each other. It was a damn shame too, because in listening to “Humble Peasants” or lead single “The Men Who Live Upstairs” as standalone tracks, they turned out to be stunning, multi-tiered pop songs that did nothing short of shimmer, that magic mysteriously getting lost in the full-length format.
So, much like that impromptu acoustic set around a fire pit, the band is now doing something they’ve never tired before: recording with an outside producer.
At first, this may not seem like a big deal, but given that their two full-lengths (along with their admirable 2006 Phages EP) were produced by the band’s keyboardist Ryan Lenssen, it seemed that some outside perspective would give the band a bit of a reboot to their sound — and that’s exactly what’s happened. By bringing in Arts & Crafts’ resident superproducer Dave Newfeld (Broken Social Scene, Los Campesinos!), the group has now expanded their sonic palette, unafraid to bring back the dance beats of their debut album while at the same time holding on to the more rustic, organic textures of Populations, making what may arguably be their first record to best encapsulate “that MSR sound”.
… And the Ever Expanding Universe opens with “Bubble Reputation”, a spirited piano number that wouldn’t sound too out of place on Population, and, sadly, makes for a relatively average melodic pace car, as it simply cycles through many of the tropes that the MSR have used before. When things move on to “Heavens to Purgatory”, however, thumping back beats begin mixing with sliding acoustic guitars, a cacophony of handclaps, and — by tracks’ end — a choir of looped voices all saying different things. And yes, that’s Jewett and Ditchburn softly cooing out the words “gadzooks” over and over again. “Purgatory” shows that the group has not only found their groove, but along the way, they’ve developed a sense of humor, and since they’re not taking themselves as seriously as they have before, their words, vocals, and performances all sound a bit more open and free, making for an intensely enjoyable listening experience.
The group rarely, rarely adheres to a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, which by itself will still loan the band to comparisons to Broken Social Scene whether they like it or not. Hell, “Phi” sounds like exactly what you think of when you hear the phrase “Broken Social Scene Jr.”, even as it deviates from the BSS formula by throwing in beatbox vocals and monstrously huge fuzz-guitar licks during the half-way point. “The Old Forever New Things” threatens to veer off in that same territory before it saves itself with its intricate bass work and Eastern-tinged acoustic accents — these seemingly separate elements never once sounding out of place in the context of the album. Much like Underwater Cinematographer, there are many exciting aural left turns to be found, as no song ever stays in place for too long. When the group finally does decide to settle down and deliver an echo-laced piano ballad (“All of One is the Other”), it feels like we’re being granted a break period, our hearts allowed to stop racing while the group collects their things to get ready for round two.
As good as Universe‘s first half is, though, it’s the second act that positively destroys our preconception as to what the Most Serene Republic is capable of. “Patternicity” is a five-minute instrumental wherein the group decides to go the orchestral route, bringing in flutes, horns, and string sections to craft their very own pocket-symphony that would be completely at home during the closing credits of some period Oscar-bait drama. No, really: what happened to the Most Serene Republic of past?
Yet the surprises don’t stop there. “Four Humors” is a sweetly low-key dance-rock track (as oxymoronic as that sounds) that’s as excitable as it is lovely, and “Catharsis Boo” comes off as an Interpol song that’s anchored by the notable addition of some female vocal choirs, their voices cascading over the syncopated drum hits. Then, just because the band hasn’t done enough crazy things already, they launch into “Don’t Hold Back, Feel a Little Longer”, where they finally succumb to calling of the pure pop song, 80s synth keyboards soon clashing with Adam Balsam’s furious drum patterns while the group pretty much sits down and watches their creation fight itself in a whirlwind of upbeat tempos and colored guitar textures. The group has never done a song as furious, uncompromising, or overcaffinated as this one, and following the (now) dry-by-comparison Population, this is a welcome change indeed.
The Most Serene Republic’s … And the Ever Expanding Universe isn’t going to win any Album of the Year accolades, however. It isn’t an album that makes any grand statements (largely due to Jewett’s occasionally unintelligible lyrics), nor is it going to generate a huge cross-over radio staple (though it would be funny to hear “Don’t Hold Back” positively destroy everything else on the radio dial in terms of sheer tempo). Universe isn’t designed to do any of those things. Instead, Universe is what it is: a fun, catchy, constantly-shifting indie rock album that shows a young band finally discovering their collective voice and having the time of their lives celebrating that revelation. “We’ve never tried this before” they noted before they did that impromptu acoustic session around the fire pit; now they’re trying things they never thought they were even capable of two years ago, and as a result of that boundary-pushing, they’ve just made the best album of their careers.