For the Great Lake Swimmers, or rather, for the changing collective that supports the quiet and wild pastoral genius of Tony Dekker, this is a difficult fifth album. From the rugged gentleness of Great Lake Swimmers and Bodies and Minds through the slightly poppier feel of Ongiara and the slightly more successful mix of pop and ambient wilderness of Lost Channels it was difficult to know which way their sound would or could go.
And then there’s the extra player in every Great Lake Swimmers record – the ambience of the recording location. The first album definitely has a hissy extra dimension from being recorded in a grain silo. Other locations from the old Aeolian Hall in London Ontario to various odd places in the Thousand Islands that straddle the US/ Canadian border on the St Lawrence river give previous albums an atmospheric edge. The fact that this album was mainly recorded in a studio in Toronto puts the onus firmly on the songwriting and focuses on the performance.
Well, the songwriting is as strong, individual and full of references to man as a small part of a greater natural world as ever, and the studio arrangements strive for an airy atmosphere that provides a sympathetic sound stage to some exquisite miniature masterpieces. There are more rock/pop effects on the album than before – electric guitars with echo and chorus rather than taking their sound from their surroundings – giving an impression of a concerted effort to make more of a pop album than the previous four outings. But it’s more than a pop album.
The sound is set by the opener ‘Think That You Might be Wrong’ with a chorus-filled electric guitar that evokes ’50s crooning pop but supports a beautiful, quietly angry song, dedicated to New Orleans. The string arrangements are more complex and to the fore than on any previous album. This quickly seques into the joyful single ‘New Wild Everywhere’ which celebrates nature busting out all over (“Rocks jump and jitter, and push surface roots/Dream the clay and water, and simmer up the shoots/The weather breaks, the spirit shakes, and something switches on”) – made for eco-friendly radio joy.
In ‘The Great Exhale’ – a contemplative song about landscape and earth being a living, breathing thing – we are taken back to a more classic GLS sound; recorded not in the studio but in the Toronto subway system. This leads to ‘The Knife’ – a quietly menacing song about the carelessly destructive force of man, and a creature without defence. The drum is hypnotic and complex, reminiscent but not imitative of Canadian First Nation sounds: stunningly beautiful.
The album continues with a mixture of driving pop (‘Easy Come Easy Go’) and startlingly intricate love songs, which are sometimes to nature rather than obviously to another human, such as ‘Cornflower Blue’, and the bucolic romanticism of ‘Quiet your Mind’ . There’s also gritty depiction of the rural reality of the harshness of making a living from the sea with ‘Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife’.
Then the man of nature returns to his urban environment for ‘Parkdale Blues’. An attempt to sum up the contradictions of a community in West Toronto that is a mixture of established residents and artists and also some in-your-face poverty and drug use, it’s a lovely bittersweet hymn to the reality of urban life, and a stark counterpoint to the grappling with the complexities of the natural world that has gone before.
And then the album ends with a return to nature and its fears and dangers. ‘On the Water’ is a beautiful and terrifying encounter with a storm and a near death experience when in a rowing boat. In the middle of the storm is a vision of everything living, which the singer places himself alongside ( “And I saw my body on a body of water/And I could see that we were the same/Roaring and reckless, vulnerable/In motion, and swaying and predisposed to changing”). All of which leaves the singer, in calmness, weeping at the enormity of it all.
Lyrically, the record is an intense journey through one man’s complex struggle to place himself in the context of a natural universe that provides at the same time an opponent and an ally. Musically, however, it is sung through some sublime and accessible pop melodies and has moments of exquisite contemplative beauty in sound. The fact that it is recorded in a studio not in a challenging natural or historic setting does not detract – the mountains and the rivers and the fish and the birds and animals are brought into Toronto and meet the humans in Parkdale. This “new wild” really is everywhere.