Albums in Review 2015 - Club Meds, Dan Mangan + Blacksmith
“But unity in numbness is a façade…” It’s a sentiment read in the short essay included on the CD jacket, and explored throughout the album Club Meds by Dan Mangan + Blacksmith. Club Meds is a drastic departure in tone and execution relative to Mangan’s earlier work. The folk-inspired balladry of Nice, Nice, Very Nice has been replaced by visceral Burroughs-esque imagery. The uplifting orchestral arrangements of Oh Fortune have given way to brooding ambiance. On Club Meds, Dan discusses the escapist tendencies he feels are slowly enveloping our lives. While a dedicated reader might have noticed subtle undercurrents of cynicism in his previous writing, his 2015 album is a dedicated exploration of those thoughts.
Club Meds begins with a warning. Offred, the opening track, takes its name from the titular character in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale. Both the song and the source literature serve up a hypothetical future in which a once well-off people are now divided and oppressed, their state of apathy having been exploited by the oppressors. In the context of Club Meds, it is the ghost of Christmas Future come early. Mangan is providing the view from which to further contemplate the rest of the album.
“The disengagement of the bubble is hypnotizing,” opens Mouthpiece. This is one of the more driving songs on an extraordinarily dark album. Mangan tells us that “sedation can be chemical, but not exclusively so.” Mouthpiece seems to deal with each of these camps.
Albums occasionally possess a song that serves as an anchor - as a central axis around which the record revolves. On Club Meds, that honour is bestowed upon Kitsch. Every aspect of excellence that can be found through the record can be heard here. The layers of counter rhythms and relentlessly arpeggiating melodies combine in a uniquely captivating soundscape. The lyrical choices embody the style of the larger whole – focused less on narrative, more on image and aesthetic.
While the reference to A Handmaid’s Tale is made abundantly clear in Offred, one can’t help but think Mangan was further inspired by Atwood while writing XVI. The song that comes closest to the lyrical and musical style seen on his previous records seems to harken back to The Year of the Flood (and perhaps the Maddaddam trilogy in general).
Following XVI is a song that listeners will almost certainly forget after their first pass – but nevertheless remains an integral part of Club Meds. War Spoils is a short experiment with pure atmosphere. Jagged disjointed lyrics and a lack of anything resembling a melodic hook - it’s the type of song that would surely be cut by a pop-oriented producer. But it’s a key component of an album that aspires to be more than the sum of it’s parts. The placement of War Spoils perfectly transitions into what is arguably the most emotionally climactic point of the album – Forgetery.
The album closes with a perfect tandem in Pretty Good Joke and New Skies. These songs are, in a way, film negatives of each other. Pretty Good Joke languidly flows on the current of the chipper bass and birdcall synthesizers, while the lyrics are nothing if not burnished black cynicism. In a way, the album concept ends here, at the penultimate track. New Skies, with its oddly hopeful poetry backed by slow-growing minor-key chaos, would appear to be an epilogue of sorts. “Eyes that once only dreamed, crippled by sleep, now opening, ready and willing, able to see.” But with the awakening comes a realization that we must now act. That living fully in our environment, our community, our society, means we must forgo our “Christmas all the time” mentality. As the closing notes of the final ascending guitar cut, a spastic white-noise synthesizer sends us home wondering, are we ready to leave the party?
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Thom Yorke of Radiohead declared that the long-form album is a dead art. Club Meds is singlehandedly proving that the LP format is not only alive, but worth fighting for. It is proof that a well crafted record is more than a collection of well crafted songs. Club Meds is a unified whole, tackling some of the most important problems in our collective lives. It is not simply the best album of 2015, but one of the most emotionally compelling albums of the last decade.
On a personal note – I listened to Club Meds more than any other record this year. In fact, after its release in January, it became the exclusive occupant of my car stereo for almost three months. While I’m not one to tire of albums in the first place, this one possesses a longevity that is matched by few others. I often talk to friends about the “season” of an album. Some records sing the spirit of summer, while others augur autumn. Club Meds is indisputably a winter album, and being released in January allowed it maximum play during its natural season.
While I was at the peak of my Club Meds obsession, Long Range Hustle was engaged in the grueling task of mixing Saplings. We would get up at dawn to drive to the studio, spend 12 hours agonizing over every acoustic detail, to then drive home through the frigid winter night and repeat it again the next day. I will always associate the opening organ/synth of Offred with the morning rays of sunshine spearing through my clouded breath as we left the house. As conceptually dark as the album is, my strongest associative memories are ironically ones of adventure and opportunity. Now, when I listen to Club Meds, I’m shaken by a compulsion to make or do. To not sit idly, but capitulate to a feverish motivation. Though now that I think about it, maybe that’s precisely what Dan Mangan was hoping for when he wrote Club Meds.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, eh Dan?