Wax Mannequin Is Keeping Canada Weird
Wax Mannequin's latest album Have a New Name gets back to iconoclastic singer/songwriter's roots.
Have a New Name
28 September 2018
It's becoming accepted in Canada that due to exorbitant rents mass gentrification in Toronto, the nearby city of Hamilton, Ontario is becoming a kind of Brooklyn within the urban sprawl. As the hub of Canada's steel industry on the shores of Lake Ontario, Hamilton has previously been known for its blue-collar rock scene that spawned punk pioneers Teenage Head to current upstarts Arkells and the Dirty Nil.
But where the Brooklyn comparisons come in is Hamilton's weird artistic underbelly, going back to legendary space-rockers Simply Saucer and the pre-U2 collaborations between Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. You can count Wax Mannequin, aka Christopher Adeney, in that group of Hamilton fringe voices as well. His songs can be, by turns, dark and thoughtful or pounding and ridiculous, yet they always bear the stamp of careful craftsmanship, even when Adeney fully adopts the endearing guise of a barroom philosopher.
All of that is gloriously displayed on the seventh Wax Mannequin album, Have a New Name, the result of Adeney reuniting with producer Edwin Burnett, with whom he made some of the first Wax Mannequin recordings in the early 2000s. Working in a small east-end Hamilton industrial space containing an array of vintage and modern gear, the pair—along with percussionist Mark Raymond—crafted Have a New Name's eight songs out of semi-impromptu sessions that eventually expanded with the addition of grand piano, gamba da viola, double bass, and a 12-piece choir. The end product is the most sonically ambitious Wax Mannequin album to date, and also arguably the most powerful.
As Adeney says, "It was a deeply meaningful experience to reconnect with my old friend Edwin. Without my early collaborations with him, I would not be in music today. The dark, whimsical playfulness that initially drew us together nearly two decades ago still resonates throughout this record."
As an example, Adeney points to the album's closing track "The Longest Hour", an atmospheric travelogue that never lags over the course of its nearly nine minutes. The song's brilliance in infiltrating the mind of a restless wanderer mirrors Adeney's own experiences touring the world in recent years, a primary inspiration for many of the songs on Have a New Name. However, he acknowledges he's struck a balance between his domestic and touring lives, which provides a different kind of tension to his current work.
"Usually melodies come to me during my civilized times—working around the house, shoveling snow, building shelves. I usually write my lyrics when I'm traveling, which I think is reflected in themes of serene self-destruction and transient creative relationships. I wrote 'The Longest Hour' while hauling a rickety cart of gear across Germany, sleepless and a slave to the Bahn-schedule. As a song, it's by no means autobiographical, but the protagonist undergoes a similarly meaningless and life-damaging adventure."
Other songs on Have a New Name such as "Basketball" and "Squirmy Wormy" are rooted in the whimsical component of Adeney and Burnett's creative partnership, while the songs "Someone Fixed the Game" and "People Can Change" display a maturity that signals Wax Mannequin is indeed more than capable of reaching wider audiences without sacrificing any of his edge.
It's a crossroads that all iconoclastic musicians must encounter sooner or later, and Adeney says he never fails to be inspired by artists such as David Byrne, Jason Molina, and Scott Walker in terms of making seemingly incompatible ideas work within a pop context. It's an approach he began to explore a lot more seriously in the wake of the last Wax Mannequin album, 2012's No Safe Home, which earned well-deserved praise for its sparse production and deeply personal lyrics.
While forming his vision for Have a New Name, Adeney drew from the fact that he's been making a singular brand of music for two decades, while simultaneously building a suburban life as, in his words, "one of the neighbourhood guys, albeit a slightly quirky one".
He adds, "I'd describe my musical evolution as moving from audience-alienating, avant-guard weirdness to emotive, good-time art-pop. Music and travel have helped me slowly strip away who I thought I was and have allowed me to find some naked, formless identity again and again. My best performances still come from a selfless, almost meditative space. And my best songs come from deep sleep, mindful breathing and moments of self-immolating frustration."
With Have a New Name, Christopher Adeney has made a Wax Mannequin album utterly necessary for this moment in time. Challenging and earthy, funny and heartbreaking, in search of answers yet rooted in hard-earned wisdom.