“If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you’re a one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, 1952)
Dan Mangan‘s Oh Fortune has a bold creative vision at its core, lyrics that reflect his expanded horizons since the sophomore release of Nice, Nice, Very Nice in 2009, with music skilfully interpreted by his long-time band and textured by the inspired production team of Colin Stewart (Black Mountain, Cave Singers) and the people at Broken Social Scene’s record label, Arts and Crafts Productions, in Toronto. The surge of interest following the last album has seen the Vancouver-based artist on a busy touring schedule, playing bigger and bigger concerts to an ever-widening audience. As you’d expect, the music on Oh Fortune marks this shifting perspective in his career: bravely stepping out from the conventions of local homespun folk, the Canadian has come up with a collection of songs which ruminate on life, death, a developing world view and… burning objects! In short, this is an album of pyrotechnics and incendiary-folk, and is anything but half-hearted.
While the songs on Oh Fortune may not fit neatly into any radio schedule, their rough-hewn quality means they should “stick around in people’s guts a bit longer”, Mangan’s stated intention. It marks the inevitable creative rise of an artist who strays outside the conventions of songwriting but if he does face marketing problems the sheer inventiveness and ideas on display should make resistance seem futile. This album sees the Canadian artist enriching his musical palette, with great orchestral sweeps, swathes of psychedelia, odd-sounding harmonic and electronic effects, along with the more conventional Neil Young influences which characterize his earlier work. And the booming voice with its great rasping qualities remains at the heart of things, Mangan manages to sound at once world-weary and yet full of wonder … for the world! A song like ‘Leaves, Trees and Forest’ follows a simple chorus-chant “There are leaves, and the trees are trees in the forest”, but repeated over and over it becomes like a mantra, with constant shifts in vocal range and tempo, almost shamanistic… Paul Weller had a similar quality in his voice, a diamond hewn out of rough stone, with each album seeing further refinements and the exercise of greater and greater control.
The first bars of opener ‘About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All’ sound like the orchestra warming up on Sgt. Pepper until the song strikes up with fanfare and singer reflecting on life:
“Both feet together slowly progressing always in time/Don’t count the feathers just count the wings every day counting/Everything’s changing, I almost forgot it, then I remember …/I was thrown in the boat cast out to sea friendly with waves/There were sharks below hungry for me, so I dangled my legs/I lit up like a match, ‘cos I bled gasoline made a torch of myself/So the moon was mine, stars made of me, I lit up that sky”
The narrative is the voice of somebody struggling to provide the basics of life, but when it segues into the next, ‘How Darwinian’, a song which builds gradually with soaring harmonics and orchestration, this time we are met by somebody wanting more from life:
“In the cars, in the beds where they sleep/In the alleyway behind fast food chains where they eat/People don’t know what they want they just know they really want it/They should know by now there’s only so much to go round/Through a lens like a dog at your feet/I will the world the way that it seems easy to see/See I dont know what I want, I just know I really want it/I should know better by now there’s only so much to go around”
Clever little dichotomies to one side, it’s an impressive opening salvo which acts like a prologue for the rest of the album, but also brings the perspective back to the singer himself and his own changing view of the world. ‘Post-War Blues’ and ‘If I Am Dead’ also seem linked, the first a rocket reminiscent of angular/spikey Radiohead aka ’2 + 2 = 5′, in which Mangan sings about a made-up war to provide a false and distracting unity (I’m paraphrasing here, Dan!), and then follows it in the second with spirits of the dead reflecting on the funeral ticker-tape processions and ‘glories’ that greet the returning soldiers (“If only I’d known, maybe I’d be here tomorrow”). It’s not simple anti-war rhetoric though, his sympathies are with the victims of war, like the damaged veterans struggling to fit back into society and largely abandoned by the governments who sent them off to fight in the first place. Taking a similar line to PJ Harvey on the brilliant Let England Shake, Mangan makes observations rather than takes sides.
So I was all set for a folk-style OK Computer, but with a shrug of the shoulders at the world’s madness Mangan switches his attention to the music instead. The rest of the album plays out as a set of great musical arrangements and ideas rather than as any one over-arching theme. It’s rather rambling, but necessarily so. You can imagine a Mangan ‘regime’: very free-form and full of ideas, like a jazz session, keeping people on a long rein to allow free expression and generate as many ideas as possible. It seems to work on Oh Fortune, too: a song like ‘Daffodil’ would be fairly ordinary in less capable hands, just pretty and folk, but running the guitar through various kinds of distortion a-la-Keith Richards, and throwing in megaphone vocal and funeral organ for good measure, it still comes up smelling of daffodils, but probably the sort Tom Waits would bring to your funeral! In short, nothing is straightforward on Oh Fortune as Mangan leans more and more heavily on experimentation to achieve what he wants. The title track, although set in fairly conventional folk-rock format, effuses and effervesces with life, and is set to a massive marching drum beat which goes off like a firecracker at the end. It’s another album high point, one of many.
While ‘Rows Of Houses’ gives the band chance to crank things up Neil Young-style and Mangan goes full throttle on that rasping voice of his, ‘Regarding Death And Dying’ slows things down again and is another rumination on the dead, with sombre gospel-like choir and harmonics ringing in the ears until the song is cut short in its prime. And the references to burning keep coming (I counted 3 or 4). ‘Jeopardy’ climaxes the album, with a series of questions like somebody trying to collect their thoughts together, a sentiment which overwhelmingly sums up the artist’s state of mind on Oh Fortune (“Where did I go? What is this sorrow? Have I always been filled with questions? Why do I always lean on good intentions? What’s flammable? What happens when all flags burn together? Is that unity? Are you angry? Why do I get the feeling you’re angry?”). The song was inspired by the 1986 Rob Reiner film ‘Stand By Me’ and a summer of listening to Sam Cooke records, like the film evoking the spirit of an age …
So Dan Mangan has created a land of dreams on Oh Fortune, showing the same signs of artistic restlessness which have characterized the output of bands like Radiohead and Wilco in recent years. Change can be painful and unsettling, sometimes it’s easier to turn back, but great artists know how liberating and exciting new music can be. They also hope it will stick around in our guts a bit longer! The half-assed tend to party like it’s 1999, live in the ‘glorious’ past and re-hash the same old ideas, but happily Mangan is in the other camp! On his award-winning single ‘Road Regrets’ from Nice, Nice, Very Nice, he sang: “We’ll drive until the gas is gone, we’ll walk until our feet are torn”, but on his latest album Oh Fortune, Mangan simply refuses to take his foot off the gas. Now what next for this talented artist?