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Dan Mangan's work to date has given his fans and listeners plenty to explore and with Club Meds, his fourth album and the first to be credited to Dan Mangan + Blacksmith, he serves up another set of songs that demand and reward your attention.
Blacksmith, in case your were wondering, isn't some edgy up and coming producer that Mangan has brought on board. Instead it is the name that his regular backing band have decided to use, and whilst the band hasn't changed and they still create a huge, often complex, background for Mangan's songs, this time around they have a equal billing. Their name is surely deliberate as well, Blacksmith suggesting someone who works hard at perfecting their craft.
On his previous album, the acclaimed Oh Fortune, Mangan focused his lyrical attention on contemporary problems such as war, loneliness and our wasteful culture without offering solutions to any of them, and Club Meds is written from a similarly helpless point of view. Those themes return but in the liner notes he explains that this album "is about sedation....Sedation can be chemical, but not exclusively so. There is a great vacation from actuality going on. Maybe there always has been. It seems like everybody else is already at the party and that life is somehow easier or more fun under the fog."
That "fog" is present throughout, as Mangan's delicate folk-based songs are coloured with elaborate arrangements. Trumpets, violins and synths swirl over the backbone of guitar, bass and drums. On some songs, such as the title track and 'Forgetery' it is practically a wall of sound.
They also set out to disorientate the listener, and anyone expecting a straight singer-songwriter effort will immediately be thrown by the electronic collage at the start of album opener 'Offred' with its ticking clocks and distant robotic voices. That tune soon builds into something epic and anthemic, as Mangan intones "I give in, I do not have the fight," a bit like what might happen if his fellow Canadians Arcade Fire had taken a darker turn.
The two uptempo tunes here, 'Vessel' and 'Mouthpiece' are also the most immediate. The former has a punchy yet intriguing refrain ("it takes a village to raise a fool") whilst the latter is a lyrical assault with lines like "I want to breathe in the ashes of books they tried to burn/ I want to feel the pages in my skin and understand the words." He may talk of wading through a medicated fog but here he sounds angry and energised.
This is a musically rich work, and at times the arrangements are overwhelming, like the slow-burning 'A Doll's House Pavlovia' or the mix of minimalism and folk melody on 'Pretty Good Joke'. However Mangan's words and vocal delivery are still centre stage and his subject matter can be surprising and often illuminating.
For example 'Kitsch', which is built around a cyclical poly-rhythmic riff and a busy bass-line, explores the original 19th century German meaning of the word, which was used to describe the stark reality of the things we tend to put on a pedestal, and became a political concept for promoting an acceptable ideal. Whilst 'XVI' takes its inspiration from a painting of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette that appeared at Occupy Wall Street, yet the voice of protest seems a bit lost in the vague lyrics. On his previous album Mangan addressed the subject of war extensively, but here the only overt mention is on the delicate track 'War Spoils', which comes across as more poetic and reflective than direct.
Closing track 'New Skies' sees a haunting melody worthy of the most plaintive Radiohead tune battling with noise and jazz as it waltzes off into the run-out groove.
Dan Mangan transcended the singer-songwriter label three years ago with Oh, Fortune. Now that his band have equal footing perhaps people will start to appreciate that his work involves rich musicianship which gives the music an extra dimension and depth. Club Meds is deliberately dense and cluttered and at times confusing. The fact that it manages to be beautiful and intriguing at the same time is quite a feat.
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