If I am like a wave then you’re a rocky shore
While it might not make or break the sales of a record, it never hurts when an artist has a really good back-story for a new album release. We’ve seen it time and time again, even recently, whether it’s Bon Iver’s “heartbroken, ill mid-westerner ensconces himself in a cabin to write miserable break-up songs” or Kanye West’s search for redemption leading him to write a total freak-out rap masterpiece. Well, Winnipeg indie rockers The Details have a pretty good story behind their new full-length Lost Art too. The funny thing is they really don’t need it. Back story becomes irrelevant with an album as carefully written, recorded, and mixed as Lost Art.
The 11-track record is lush and layered, containing an almost magisterial sound that lays out how detail-oriented The Details are as songwriters and musicians. The songs on Lost Art generally revolve around guitarist and singer Joel Plett’s rhythmic guitar playing, which takes an insistent finger-picked form on a lot of the numbers here. Not unlike fellow Winnipeggers The Weakerthans (apologies to both bands for the easy/lazy comparison) it’s that bedrock that serves as the base for a set of mostly-delicate songs that leap back and forth across the bridge between folk pop and indie rock. The most outright rock and roll numbers here, like “Vulture Mechanics” and “Surface Breaks,” bring the power chords but it’s hardly amps-to-11 territory. Subtelty and dynamics go a long way here.
Part of what makes this album such a sheer delight to listen to (and it is, I assure you) is that nothing happens by accident. Everything hits in the right spot at the right tempo with the right emphasis. That seems to be the result of two important factors: first, the band spent no less than three years writing the 11 songs and a full year perfecting every last note. Second, the band enlisted some fairly heavy-hitters to man the boards in the studio: Stephen Carroll, guitarist for the aforementioned Weakerthans, and Brandon Reid, the engineer who makes The National’s records sound simultaneously, huge, intimate, dense, and dynamic.
Should anyone try to tell you that attention to detail doesn’t go a long way simply play them the album’s wondrous highlight and first-half centerpiece “The Original Mark.” A relatively quiet triumph, the song is captivatingly melodic, all yearning vocals, brushed drums, layered guitars, and textured piano, building to an emotional conclusion. That climax also illustrates the intricacies happening on both sides of the recording studio as Plett’s guitar tones change and intensify along with his singing. It adds a deft element to the proceedings that occurs so organically you might not even realize how involved it really is until a half-dozen or more listens. The guitars, piano, and tense strings all bubble to the surface of the mix at the perfect points. It is a literally perfect song, so good that despite having listened to it literally hundreds of times since it was issued last October on a teaser EP I still get a giddy rush every time I hear it.
It makes perfect sense that “Weightless In The Dark” serves as the first single, it’s rock-but-not-too-rock edge and longing vocals forming a perfectly accessible number. The story-song lyrics betray the comfortable groove of the song when you realize Plett has switched from the tale of a pair of former lovers trapped in an elevator to a tale of an impending 100-storey elevator crash that is about to kill said pair of former lovers. “You had tears in your eyes,” Plett declares several times, practically whispering it one final time before the song ends. A somewhat fantastical story, perhaps, but the bait-and-switch happens so naturally it doesn’t come across as cloying. Plett isn’t straining to be clever or cinematic; he’s earnest enough that he doesn’t have to be.
Plett’s storytelling intertwines with the deftly-arranged songs throughout the remainder of the album as well. “Lazy Activists” could be the spiritual cousin of The Weakerthans’ “Pamphleteer” with its tale of disaffected, bored suburban folk who search for a cause just to fill their time, who insist their time spent getting signatures on a petition and listening to Bob Dylan help affect real change. Opener “Satellite” finds its narrator taking comfort in interplanetary bodies of varying sizes and scopes as Plett coos one of the record’s prettiest, albeit briefest, melodies. The mournful “Gravesend Funerals” is the band’s most heartbreaking effort, lamenting the over-medication of a loved one at the end of their life and how the drugs that strive to make that person more comfortable in their last moments, that try futilely to help save them, alter that persons state of being to the point they no longer even seem like the same person. It’s a poignant lyric that becomes even more striking when you realize it’s not the sort of thing someone can write without having the accompanying experience.
I’ve read a number of reviews for Lost Art since it’s release and most of the people that have written about it like it. Even still, plenty of them almost seem like they can’t even say what it is about it that has won them over, referring more to the general mood or sound than anything else. I guess sometimes you just know you like something when you hear it.
It’s a feeling I had late last year when Jim Bryson’s latest effort was released. The Details have helped me realize that the ineffable quality that had me so frazzled, flailing around for the words to describe why I liked that album so damn much, is quite simply quality. The band has made a concentrated effort to craft songs that aren’t compressed to within an inch of their life, that don’t rely on having the loudest hook or the harshest dynamics. They’ve created melodically complex compositions on a large canvas that are at once instantly engrossing and detailed enough to keep you coming back for a second look.