The Philosophical Road from Troubadour to Parent
Dan Mangan’s fifth album finds his life in transition from globetrotting musician to mid-30s parent. The confluence of emotional changes that marked this life change provides rich ground for an introspective singer-songwriter, and Mangan confronts both the loss of his youthful degrees of freedom and the satisfactions of adult responsibilities. On a meta level, his six-year hiatus from touring also finds him re-entering a music industry that’s drastically different than the one from which he laid out. In addition to his album, he’s developed a behind-the-songwriting video series and accompanying playlist for Spotify, as well as a live variety show for Instagram — all the accoutrements of a modern music artist.
The set opens with Mangan contemplating the emotional wreckage and resulting rebirth born of questioning and destabilizing one’s beliefs. He sees life’s lynchpins as containing both risk and opportunity, a mechanism whose tension stores energy. He ponders the dichotomy of his innocent infant son being born into a world whose balance was swung by the 2016 presidential election, and he seeks to insulate himself from the unknown that then lay ahead. The lies and half-truths of the election cycle inform “Troubled Mind,” as Mangan seeks to balance the urge to stay informed with the reflex to avoid the deceit of the political class. The song’s anxious rhythm suggests an intellectual timebomb threatening to explode from the rising cognitive dissonance.
Such philosophical quandaries are balanced with the seemingly mundane responsibilities of parenthood. Having given up the adventure of a musician’s world travel, Mangan surprises himself with the satisfaction of staying put and exploring the complexities of growing up and staying put. On “Cold in the Summer” he’s pulled into middle age even as his youth tries to hang on. He’s trading the footloose freedoms of youth for the repetitions of adult life, but he’s unsure whether to lament the loss of the former for the gain of the latter. The solemn sounding “Fool For Waiting” is as close as Mangan gets to a love song, though even here he’s inside his own head, analyzing the experience of his feelings.
Mangan writes of approaching the album with a new-found sense of minimalism, but there’s a lushness to the music that belies the lack of thickly woven instrumental layers. The arrangements are minimal, but the album never sounds spare; that’s because Mangan’s voice is itself quite rich, and Drew Brown and Simone Felice’s production supports him with smooth bass tones, crisp drums and cymbals, and instrumental touches that occasionally lead to light psychedelic moments. It’s the right sound for such contemplative lyrics, inviting listeners to both feel the mood and interpret the lyrics. Though recorded in bits and pieces over several years, the album feels whole, and offers an eye-opening step forward.