September 27th, 2015 | Features | 0 Comments
If you’re in the New York area, there’s a free appreciation party for the album at Baby’s All Right today (September 27th) at 5:00.
In the early aughts, Montreal was all about the apocalypse sound.
Between 2001-2006, the albums best embodying the fear, angst, anger and societal disconnect sweeping North America following 9/11 came from French Canada’s largest city: Montreal, Quebec. Even New York’s own revived music scene found itself bested by the likes of Montreal bands Godspeed You! Black Emperor, A Silver Mt. Zion, Arcade Fire, The Dears and The Stills – all of whom released stark, beautiful, despairing albums reflecting the fever of the times. But the album that best captured the era’s feeling of subdued hysteria was Wolf Parade’s 2005 debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary.
Although based in Montreal, all Wolf Parade’s members were originally from British Columbia, and their scruffy looks and raucous energy had more in common with BC bands like Ladyhawk and Japandroids than anything from la belle province. Also unlike their popular peers in Arcade Fire or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Wolf Parade were not a collective, nor did their music feature the kind of orchestral sounds then in vogue. Dan Boeckner’s dirty guitars and Spencer Krug’s spacey analog synths defined their aesthetic. Combined with Arlen Thompson’s mammoth drums and Hadji Bakara’s anxious electronics, Wolf Parade’s sound on Apologies conjured up sonic images of a ‘used future’ resembling the one in Terminator movies: desolate, dystopian, and technologically terrifying.
“I’m not in love with the modern world.”
The album’s second track, “Modern World”, is Boeckner’s ironic reply to the Modern Lovers’ song “Modern World”. It is also serves as the album’s mission statement. Far from being in love with the modern world and the USA and driving with the radio on, Wolf Parade’s members were not impressed. On the contrary, Apologies is a litany of Wolf Parade’s issues with the times. In “Shine A Light”, Boeckner bewails the constant treadmill of low-level employment, with its “endless hours in the office tour/on a bus on a bus back home to you/that’s fine I’m barely alive.” In “We Built Another World”, he voices his disgust with the superficiality of youth culture where “everyone’s disguised just a little bit.” Krug, in “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts”, borrows an image from Hindu mythology to lament Western affluenza. In “Dinner Bells”, he imagines an impending environmental apocalypse where “there’ll be no more winter/And there’ll be no more spring.” In “I’ll Believe In Anything”, he voices a generation’s desperation for existential meaning.
Anxiety about the end of nature in an increasingly technology-dominated world is another one of the album’s consistent complaints. In a Pitchfork interview from 2005, Boeckner acknowledged the theme, saying,
“There’s this sort of alienating feeling, for me sometimes at least, where I feel like there’s all this technology that is now completely embedded in the environment that we live in– I don’t understand it or I’ve just got to the point that I completely ignore it and that kinda freaks me out. And also, I get this feeling of decay from growing up in a small town and moving to successively larger cities. Sometimes I feel like these cities are built on snarled machines that seem tenuous and not as solid as a huge den of trees outside your house.”
Although it is never addressed explicitly, Boeckner and Krug make subtle references to it in lyrics like “It’s gotta last to build up your eyes/And a lifetime of red skies,” (“Modern World”) and “Said you hate the sound/Of the buses on the ground/Said you hate the way they scrape their breaks all over town/Said pretend it’s whales keeping their voices down/These were the grounds for divorce I know” (“Grounds For Divorce”). Adam Bizanski’s haunting stop-motion music video for “Modern World” also references it, depicting the band being replaced by spindly, efficient machines.
Although Boeckner and Krug’s writing styles have always been distinguishable, their shared sense of crushing despair on Apologies – “Fancy Claps” is basically the musical equivalent of sitting in a dark corner in the fetal position – provided the album with thematic consistency. In subsequent work, however, Boeckner and Krug’s songwriting paths diverged enormously.
With Krug’s Sunset Rubdown and Moonface projects, as well as Swan Lake – his indie supergroup with Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes, Blackout Beach) and Dan Bejar (Destroyer, New Pornographers) – Krug would dive headfirst into the fantastical elements of his work hinted at on Apologies. Starting with Sunset Rubdown’s 2006 album Shut Up I Am Dreaming, Krug as the dreamer with fantastical visions of sacred animals, mythical beasts and places where lovers have wings, would henceforth be the definitive one. The political Krug, who so poignantly depicted the neo-conservative, religion-tinged insanity of the Bush era in “Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” and “I’ll Believe In Anything”, would for the most part disappear.
Boeckner, on the other hand, became perhaps the closest thing to a protest singer in aughts indie-rock (after Efrim Menuck). Starting in 2007, Boeckner’s band Handsome Furs (with then-wife Alexei Perry) toured many of the places most bands avoid in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The duo’s time in the former USSR inspired the soviet vibe of 2009’s Face Control, the back cover of which features a picture of Putin. Their song “Serve the People” was inspired by the Burmese government’s efforts to block rock bands from playing for the general public. The duo also starred in their own CNN.com vlog series called Indie Asia and blogged about their travels on their website.
Boeckner and Handsome Furs became increasingly political until their breakup in 2012, but the end of the Bush era and the beginning of Obama’s “hope and change” administration saw North American indie rock generally lose interest in writing about political issues. Gone were the days of Bright Eyes and TV on the Radio releasing free anti-Bush digital downloads. Even in Canada, where the current right-wing, Bush-wannabe Prime Minister Stephen Harper ascended to power in 2006, indie rock – at least outside of Quebec – became just as apolitical. Musicians in the United States and Canada voiced support for the Occupy movement, Pussy Riot, and other progressive matters, but few prominent North American indie rock bands and artists explicitly dealt with contemporary issues in their musical work.
Post-Apologies Wolf Parade were, for the most part, no exception to this trend. The songwriting of 2008’s At Mount Zoomer and 2010’s Expo 86 gave the impression that whereas Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs were once considered Wolf Parade side projects, Wolf Parade had become the supergroup side-project of Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs members. Both were still great albums, but the thematic unity of Apologies’ politics was nearly gone, with songs like “Call It A Ritual” (about wars in the Middle East) and “Yulia” (Boeckner returning to his soviet fascination) providing the rare exceptions.
In 2011, Wolf Parade announced it was going on indefinite hiatus.
Listening to Apologies in September 2015 is a strange experience, like opening a time capsule from the first couple years of the Bush administration and post-9/11 world. All the worst memories from the period come rushing back. The World Trade Center attacks. Anthrax in the mail. The Patriot Act. The declaration of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite the problems of 2015, North America is in many ways a more hopeful place (at least for progressive and liberal types) than it was during the Bush years. Americans elected the first African-American president. Gay marriage is legal in the United States and Canada. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq appear to be winding down. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan indicates that at least one political party in the US is finally getting serious about confronting climate change. And although Canadian Prime Minister Harper has tarnished Canada’s environmental reputation and passed his own Patriot Act in the form of Bill C-51, at the time of writing, Canada’s progressive New Democratic Party are leading the federal election polls [update: a recent Star poll found the Conservatives to be in the lead – let’s all hope it’s wrong and if you’re a Canadian reading this, please go out and vote if you haven’t already.]
So could an album as crushing and apocalyptic as Apologies be made in 2015? Maybe not. There’s a wounded passivity to Apologies; a feeling of being beaten down too many times. The album is peppered with lyrics about laying in bed, sleeping and wanting to run away. One can find similar sentiments on other albums from the period, like Arcade Fire’s Funeral (see: “In The Backseat”) and Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief (see: “Sit Down Stand Up”). But there’s a feeling of active hope or at least resilient anger in more recent political music. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band’s most recent album is called Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything. When Arcade Fire sing “Can we just work it out?” on Reflektor’s “Afterlife”, they sound like they believe we actually can work it out. Is the apocalypse sound dead? Or is it just waiting until after election season to make a return?