Familiarity is comforting. We seek it out and find it everywhere. A scuff on a pair of shoes reminds you of the time your lover stepped on your your toe when you leaned in for a kiss; the texture and smell of a sweater takes you back to a day spent wearing it years ago. Familarity can be a burden too: that sweater, long since past the of being worn out, sticks around in a closet un-repaired and unworn, waiting for memories to fade so that new ones can advance and take their place. You can only hold so much in your brain, after all—and the old stuff is great. Why even try to improve on it? “If I close my eyes and tell myself it’s someone else, I like it, ” a friend said when she first head Club Meds, Dan Mangan’s fourth full length album, “but I just want my old Dan back.” One persons comfort is another person’s worn out sweater. So it goes. The release of Dan Mangan’s fourth full length album, Club Meds, is probably the most hotly anticipated event on Vancouver’s music scene this year. Coming, as it does, not even two weeks into it that says something: there is unlikely to be another album from a Vancouver artist in 2015 that will generate as much buzz as this (whatever generating buzz means at day’s end.)
A little history: Mangan grew up here, and released his first album in 2007 quickly folliowing it with the Roboteering EP. That success led to 2009’s Nice, Nice Very Nice and the Year of Mangan. Nice, Nice Very Nice blew up, and Mangan went from playing quaint gigs with 100 people in the audience to selling out Vancouver’s Orpheum theatre after a nearly endless round of touring right through the 2011 release of another full length album–Oh Fortune.
Nice, Nice Very Nice was a well written if fairly straightforward collection of songs by the bearded baritone. The album’s breakout “hit” was the concert ending sing-along Robots, a song so infectious he caught Emmylou Harris singing along at an L.A. performance. Basket was a moody, plaintive tune penned in honour of Mangan’s grandfather. From end to end, Nice, Nice Very Nice is a coherent, well crafted work that earned a the well deserved songwriter massive radio play, a huge number of fans and a nod for the Polaris Prize. When it was awarded to Quebec’s Karkwa instead, led to the kind of indignation usually reserved for hockey here. It was a very big deal. A triumphant homecoming show at the end of the first leg of his tour remains one of those “I was there” moments on many lists. (I was. It was a great show that was so sold out that Dan snuck a friend of mine from Minneapolis in the back door of the theatre—she’s hadn’t heard of him then, but is now a fan.)
Familiarity sets in, and suddenly the audience of a hundred is an audience of thousands, all asking for Robots in every city. Audiences need love too, it seems. Audiences need love too.
The burden: as an artist, do you give the fans what they want or follow your heart? It’s readily apparent on Club Meds that Mangan has chosen the latter: it’s an album that, on first listen, probably sounds as different from the folksy Nice, Nice Very Nice sound that built Mangan’s audience as anything could. The studio is a part of the band here: there’s obvious use of effects, with heavy reverb on that rich baritone voice at times (see Kitsch for a good example.) It’s a lot to process: it hits your ear and sounds…not like what your ear was waiting for. Rather like sitting down at a favourite restaurant with a new cook behind the grill. It’s different.
So you put the album on repeat and listen through a few times. It’s quickly apparent that Club Meds has all the ingredients: it’s lyrically rich and well produced. Offred, the album’s opener is particularly well placed: the sparsely instrumented song showcases the band’s talents as well as Mangan’s voice. I still feel the cadence / of a former life Mangan sings, perhaps an allusion to the burden of familiarity. Vessel is the album’s second track and lead single—trust me when I tell you that a lead single will never be the best song on the album, and that’s the case here. On the whole my first impression was “lots to like, but…not sure yet.”
After listening to the album a few times I decided to go out into the pitch black for a drive. I get in the car and start scrolling through my phone for music, I stopped at Club Meds. Again. Free from the distractions of home and neighbours I turn the volume up a bit and slide the car onto the highway, put it in to fifth gear and cruising into the black.
Suddenly, the album takes a new shape. It washes over as a single coherent work in a way that it didn’t at home, or at work, or wherever else you listen to it. The rhythmic pulsing of Kitsch and the odd time signature of Forgetery are stunning. New Skies the album’s closing track, is a moody ethereal thing that evades casual listen but rewards attention.
Familiarity? Those sounds have been there all along: Nice, Nice Very Nice’s best track, Fair Verona, showcased Mangan’s taste for odd timings. The interim album Oh Fortune offered up a glimpse into this future in songs that were neither straightforward nor quite as exploratory as these. Songs like Leaves, Trees, Forest and Regarding Death and Dying. There’s a thread that runs through all of these works and it leads fairly naturally to…exactly where Dan Mangan wants to be, which is Club Meds.
Radio friendly material is hard to find here: there’s no obvious Robots or Post-War Blues on Club Meds and I still find Vessel a bit grating to my ear but let’s face it—there’s enough radio friendly material out there in the world already but there’s not enough great music. Mangan is pursuing his own path, and it’s a riveting one.
There’s a slow burn here, but that’s the kicker: when it catches your hooked. Club Meds may represent something of a reset button in Mangan’s young career. If that’s the case you should make sure to stick around, because you’re going to want to make sure you catch what comes next. It’s the kind of album that’s going to serve as defining point in a career, and it’s the kind of album that you need own: it’s a classic, ahead of it’s time.
Club Meds can be ordered directly from Arts & Crafts as a downlaoad, a CD or the vinyl that you really know needs to be added to your collection. You can also order it from iTunes, but they’re not shipping you an LP now are they?