This is the third album by acclaimed Canadian songwriter Dan Mangan, and the follow-up to his Polaris prize nominated Nice, Nice, Very Nice. Although Mangan often gets saddled with the 'folk' label, his arrangements are bigger and very ambitious than that might suggest, and for every wistful reflective acoustic moment there is a string part or brass section to reach out and grab your attention. Over the course of these 11 songs it becomes clear how Mangan's songcraft is honed by both his regular band and the production skills of Colin Stewart (Black Mountain, Cave Singers, Sleepy Sun). The result is a varied and dynamic album.
Opening track 'About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Helpful At All' is an elaborate arrangement in waltz time which builds into a weaving melody reminiscent of 'Great Eastern'-era Delgados, which in turn blends into the noise band dynamics of 'How Darwinian'. Dan's lyrics are intriguing and open to interpretation, on 'How Darwinian' he sums up our 'must-have' culture with “People don't know what they want/ They just know they really want it."
'Post War Blues' is a stomping tune that zips along with all the intensity of early Arcade Fire, propelled along by abrasive electric guitar, just the right side of bombastic and a major highlight of this album. The lyrics are once again significant and timely. “Let start a war for the kids... Find them a foe for the fight/ And stories to tell as they age/ Then maybe time will decide/ Which ones keep and which ones fade."
It's followed by 'If I Am Dead', which as you might expect from the title, is a more downbeat effort, complete with distant wistful whistling in the background and muted horns, and Mangan's strong voice comes to the fore here. The words continue on from 'Post War Blues' as he pictures the return of a dead soldier.
“Oh, carry me/ Four hands, eight feet. Through crowded streets/ Ticker tape on me."
'Daffodil' carries on with that funereal sound, the guitar and vocal are processed very thinly, and although this is very much a folk song with a traditional melody, it feels distant and spooked. 'Starts with them, Ends With Us', is a brooding song with a powerful vocal reminiscent of Bill Callahan, it's one of most dynamic songs here, working with light and shade, fading quietly in the reflective mid section only to end with a flourish of horns.
The title track 'Oh Fortune' is another strong tune but it has one of the bleakest lyrics here, “aching for breathable air." 'Leaves, trees, forest' is musically much brighter with some pretty guitar lines contrasting with some of the more intense pieces on the album, but the lyrics still paint a sombre picture. "So I live alone/ Drink beer by the phone and it keeps me alive/ I know there is hope but I can't look for it." The protagonist does have some hope but can't articulate it, repeating over and over "there are leaves in the trees, there are trees in the forest." Life goes on at least.
'Regarding Death and Dying' is a beautiful quiet piece and although it doesn't use the big arrangements found on the rest of Oh, Fortune, lyrically I think it's central to the whole album, as it meditates on mortality. 'Jeopardy' is a great song to close on, and it just builds from a simple vocal melody and single guitar into a huge-sounding climax filled with lots of horns. Tellingly every line in this song is a question, and none of them are answered. The last words are “what is this sorrow?.”
Much like the recently hugely acclaimed Let England Shake by PJ Harvey, Dan Mangan has created an album reflecting on contemporary problems but doesn't seek to answer any of them. Oh Fortune was released in North America earlier in the year, but here in the UK it has snuck out in the fallow period just before Christmas, when many people have drawn a line under 2011 and have compiled their albums of the year. It would be a shame if it got ignored, as it is both musically very strong and lyrically very thought-provoking. It's well worth. your attention.