Ontario’s Charles Spearin is probably best known as the founding member of Do Make Say Think or as a part of the tremendous Broken Social Scene. He also contributes to Valley of the Giants, the post-rock supergroup.
As pronounced as his career has been thus far as a member of those aforementioned groups, there may be nothing more interesting and engaging than Spearin’s solo debut. The Happiness Project is a concept album, to be sure, and the concept is the pure, unadulterated pursuit of happiness through the exploration of rhythm, tone and mood in speech.
The concept for The Happiness Project is a simple and surprising one. Spearin interviewed people from his neighbourhood on the subject of happiness. In listening to the interviews after they were completed, the musician honed in on the natural sing-song quality of the voices and on the naturally occurring rhythms in speech patterns, seeking to blur the lines between speech and song.
The results are phenomenal, challenging and invigorating. The Happiness Project, through the use of instruments to accompany the interviews. At times we can barely hear the voices, shadowed as they are by elegant saxophone or piano. Sometimes Spearin will run a loop of a particularly melodic passage of speech, building a song with the atmosphere and cadence of the interview.
Pure joy keeps The Happiness Project from being another nutty experimental jazz concept album and makes it into a lush, joyful, profound piece of art. It is one of the best records of the year.
The songs are named for the interview subjects, with “Mrs. Morris” getting the distinct privilege of bookending the record. She offers uncomplicated, eloquent points about the nature of happiness, telling us that love is what truly matters and that we must love one another in order to truly love ourselves. Over her marvellously touching words, a tenor saxophone shadows her tone. “Good morning, what could make you so happy?” says Mrs. Morris. “Love.”
“Anna” has her voice mimicked by the sounds of a traditional jazz act, with a trumpet and piano playing with the rhythmic qualities of a repeated sentence. The piece dances away from Anna’s words teasingly, working easily into a fully realized melody from a few interesting notes.
Other pieces find Spearin electing to let the subjects speak for themselves. “Vanessa” builds on the subject’s sweetly musical accent and lets her speak before a well of touching sound springs up. And “Marisa” opens with a few seconds of atmospheric noise before the distant subject whispers through some mistakes and glitches. “Send me home,” she says and Spearin builds on the cyclic rhythms.
While The Happiness Project might not be for everyone, its appeal is actually broader than one might think. Spearin’s exploration of the human voice’s natural inflection and tenor is fascinating, enlightening us as to the splendour and warmth that exists in the most innocent of phrases and sentences. A bold, profound, stunning project, this record represents the purity, minimalism and truth of great art.