Being old enough to remember when David Bowie released the song “Young Americans”, it was the title of Eamon McGrath’s new release, Young Canadians, on White Whale Records which attracted my attention. Probably a stupid reason for wanting to hear a CD, especially as it was pretty obvious from the press release about the disc that McGrath’s music would have nothing in common with mid 1970s Bowie. However, I’ve purchased or chosen to listen to something for stupider reasons and not had any regrets, and I could only hope this would be the case on this occasion.
Thankfully, McGrath’s work is not something anybody should regret listening to. For those wishing to have it classified or categorized for them, I’d guess most would say his work falls into the folk/punk genre. I’m not even sure what that means myself, but since he mixes acoustic and electric instruments and his songs range between the quiet introspection one expects from folk and the anarchic abandon of punk, it would seem to fit. However, I’d hazard a guess that he didn’t sit down and say, “Hmm, I think I’ll create an album of folk punk music”.
I have the feeling that if it were musically appropriate to the content and context of a song, he wouldn’t hesitate at incorporating a funk groove or 12-bar blues. The sense I have from listening to this one album is he wouldn’t limit himself or his material through arbitrary boundaries. The needs of a song would far outweigh the need to fit into an easily defined niche.
Maybe it was the title of the disc which triggered this thought, but after listening to the disc, I couldn’t help but remember something I had happened across years ago regarding the arts in Canada. The quote implied they were heavily influenced by the long winters so much of the country experiences and the stark landscapes which dominate its wild spaces. While that might sound like a tempting theory, the reality is the majority of artists in Canada live in urban centres far removed from the wild, and it’s only in the far north the winters can last for what seems like forever. However, there is a quality to McGrath’s work both musically and thematically that suggests both the raw energy and stark beauty of Canada’s wilderness and the introspection associated with the long nights of winter.
That’s not to say his music is either depressing or bleak. Personally I don’t find anything depressing or bleak about winter or the wild, but I realize some would automatically make that association. Try and imagine a vista of evergreen forests brushed with snow climbing the side of a sun washed mountain and the awe it inspires.
For while the songs on this album may not be safe and civilized like most pop music, they also have a far greater chance of having a lasting impact on you in much the same way the rough beauty of nature in winter will impress itself upon you far longer than a field of corn or other tame image. Like both winter and real unspoiled nature, there’s something a little intimidating about McGrath’s work, but that’s part of what makes all of it so compelling.
The disc’s opening track, “Eternal Adolescence”, starts off with a brief, piercing whistle of guitar feedback. It cuts out abruptly, only to be replaced by an acoustic guitar carefully picking the melody, and it’s soon joined by McGrath intoning the song’s opening lyrics. While rock and roll songs in the past might have declared “I hope I die before I get old”, McGrath looks at the trade-off you make for the eternal adolescence of rock and roll. How do you fit a life into the lifestyle of constant touring and late nights? You can have “eternal adolescence” but “the schoolyard is insane”. What happens if you meet someone, and the eternal adolescence wars with the desire for the companion and that “rock and roll won’t ever be the same”?
The lyrics are deceptively simple, as the final minute of the song sees him simply repeating “rock and roll won’t ever be the same” until the music ends. However, it’s not hard to get the message of how the stereotyped rock and roll lifestyle doesn’t really mix well with adulthood. The underlying conflict described in the lyrics is emphasized by the way the music switches back and forth throughout between distortion and gentle guitar. It creates the uncomfortable feeling of someone being pulled in two directions at once,
Even more conventionally sounding rock songs like “Instrument Of My Release”, track two on the disc, have their disconcerting moments. In this case, lyrics like “I saw your picture in a magazine/How’d you end up with a man like me?/Someday I’m going to trade my black holes for memory/An instrument of my release/An instrument of my release”, aren’t what you’d call typical for a song about regrets. Normally these songs are either full of self pity and recriminations designed to elicit pity for the person singing instead of those who have suffered through their behaviour. Not in this case, as you’re left wondering what kind of stupidity did this guy indulge in that resulted in black holes instead of memories. Even the line, “How’d you end up with a man like me?” which has all sorts of potential for self pity is delivered in such a way the listener wonders what somebody would have to do to another person in order to ask such a question.
Vocally, McGrath is never going to win any awards for having dulcet tones or smooth as silk harmonies. Then again, that type of voice wouldn’t work with the music he’s playing. Ironically there are probably any number of rock singers who would sell their souls to sound like him. Ever since Dylan popularized rough textured vocals as being a kind of voice of the people, singers have been trying way too hard to sound “authentic”. Of course, if you have to try sounding authentic, it sort of defeats the purpose, but nobody seems to have quite understood that yet.
McGrath doesn’t have the greatest range but he more than compensates for any technical deficiencies in his vocals with his intensity and the effortlessness of his delivery. Like other great vocalists, he doesn’t sound “emotional”. Instead, his voice simply gives life to his songs’ lyrics through his ability to communicate the meaning behind each word. It’s not just the dictionary definition either, but what they mean in the context of the song and to him personally.
As for the title song, “Young Canadians”, well I’ll leave it to you to decide what you think of it, but I was right in thinking it was nothing like Bowie’s “Young Americans”. In fact, while you really can’t make a rock and roll album any more without sounding like something that’s been done before, McGrath has created something that uses those familiar elements in ways that make them sound new again. He’s taken all the best elements of rock and roll, country and folk and grafted his unique vision of the world onto the framework.
The resulting album doesn’t make for easy listening as it challenges the listener both musically and lyrically and forces him or her to pay close attention to each song. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re like me and want something more from your music than just escapist entertainment, it’s the album for you.