Oscar Wilde once said, ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life’. Clearly this is not the case for Dan Mangan since the release of his latest album Club Meds. “There’s a lot going on and life seems kind of insane, which is funny because I think that the record is about a lot of things to do with focusing on what’s important and turning down the noise. Sometimes I feel like I could perhaps learn something from the work itself.”
Speaking to me over the phone from Vancouver, Mangan and I discuss his new album Club Meds; his first album in three years since his two-time JUNO Award winning album Oh Fortune.
During that period, Mangan has used the time out to focus on being a father. “It’s been amazing. I think I’m really lucky in that I got to spend a lot of time with my kid in the first year and a half. I think it put to rest some of the angst of youth thing. I feel in a way calmer than I used to be. All the little things that used to drive me nuts and keep me up at night seem to matter a little bit less.”
The soothing effect fatherhood seems to have had on the Mangan’s temperament definitely has not translated across to Club Meds. It’s an impassioned and experimental polemic, full of broody undertones and disenchanted musings. Club Meds is the fourth offering from the Canadian and the first under the moniker “Dan Mangan + Blacksmith”.
Dan Mangan and “Blacksmith”: Kenton Loewen, Gordon Grdina and John Walsh.
Like the namesake, the album signifies a departure. It differs from his previous work thematically, lyrically and musically, incorporating grand sweeping ideas about numbness and sedation prevalent in contemporary society. It debuted to critical acclaim, being hailed by The Guardian for it’s “bold musical backdrops… a grand emotional climax” and as “a bold move from a rapidly developing talent” by Q Magazine. You can read our review of the album right here.
But what brought on Mangan’s desire to call out all of the bullshit around him? “I don’t know. I guess sometimes when the bullshit gets so abundant and so thick, you can’t help but mention it. I feel like a lot of the ideas on this record have been in my head for a long time, but I just didn’t really know how to articulate them.”
Call it growing up or taking a few years off to sit and reflect. Or call it having something to say. And as Mangan explains, “including some sort of political or socially critical things in your music is a careful thing because you can come off as being a pissy little brat and a holier than thou little shithead pretty easily.” He pauses, and then adds: “That’s not the intention here.”
The outcome certainly doesn’t resemble that at all. The lyricism itself is a rich collection of social commentary and literary allusions. And there’s a sense of reaffirmed cohesiveness about the music in this album under the new name of Dan Mangan PLUS Blacksmith.
I ask Mangan if the inspiration behind the name Club Meds is a reference to a sort of collective sedation. “Yeah, totally, all those things. I think that one of the reasons why I liked the title and was drawn to it was because you could extrapolate a whole bunch of things out of it. It was simple and complex at the same time.”
“I just I think it’s a comment about the ways that we cope. Existing is hard and life is hard. Sometimes the ways that we cope with it are healthy and sometimes they’re not. I think that numbing yourself from the hard stuff also rims your appreciation for the good stuff.”
And that’s just about the title of the album. In my review of Club Meds, I hypothesized that opening track Offred was alluding to the character of the same name in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Luckily for me, I was right.
“Once again, you’re two for two,” he chuckles. “Yeah, no, that song is totally written from Offred’s position.” To quickly summarise, The Handmaid’s Tale is a story in which a totalitarian Christian theocracy has overthrown the United States government and forced all reproductively viable women into procreative slavery (called Handmaids). One passage specifically makes reference to this kind of subjugation through Offred’s eyes:
I go without.
I do not have the faith.
They changed my purpose
They changed my purpose
And this is what is so unique about the lyrics: the way Mangan uses the medium of song as a figurative treatment of the novel’s themes, but from Offred’s perspective. It’s an allegory and a commentary at the same time, peppered with symbolic references from the onset and throughout.
The chorus refrain employs the use of some of the most iconic imagery associated with The Handmaid’s Tale.
What is it this tunnel vision I’m in?
What is it at all?
What is it at all?
This line is referring to the white wings the Handmaidens must wear around their heads to restrict their peripheral vision and to stop others looking at them. It’s one of the many ways in which women are stripped of their agency and dehumanised throughout the novel.
For Mangan, this song is about the arbitrary nature of freedom and our tenuous grip on it. “I think a lot about choice and even the fact that I get to play music for a living is such an incredible privilege.”
“How many people are born directly into some kind of slavery on this planet? It’s unbelievable. In the song it’s about, to me, it’s about what it means to have that choice and then to have it taken away from you.”
But this album is full of songs musing on the personal anecdotes. The accompanying music video for Vessel is a beautiful animation created by Ben Clarkson full of captivating imagery. “Every tiny little detail, so you look into the very small fine details of that video, is saying something. It’s like for every two second sequence that happens, he’s (Clarkson) got ten, you could write an essay about why and how he did that that way.”
Perhaps it is the chorus refrain of Vessel that is the line most laden with meaning, repeating over and over again: ‘it takes a village to raise a fool’.
“We’re all culprit. It’s like that classic thing, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. We all have to stick together. It’s all about the kids of the future and everything,” says Mangan.
“At the same time, yeah, it’s all of our fault that we keep making the same stupid mistakes. We keep losing track of any kind of long-term vision because we’re all engineered to take a carrot that’s right in front of us.”
Mangan says each of the songs on the album was a part of a collective process. Some of the songs were ironed out, but many of them were just melodies and words and simple chord structure ideas. Then, working with the band, they crafted them into songs and figured out they would feel and how to piece the various sections together.
“It was interesting, you know, a really rewarding process and actually a really contemptuous process at times. There were some serious arguments. There was a lot of intensity and then a lot of love and a lot of hugs.”
But arguments were warranted, as Mangan wanted everyone’s voice in the band to be heard. “In this case if feel like everybody was just ready to put it all on the table and say no I think this can be better, let’s keep working on it. Let’s keep doing it and so everybody’s voices were heard.”
But the struggle was worth it; it gave the album that feeling of communal sensibility. “It’s interesting now because when I hear the record I can hear the personalities in the band through their performances so clearly.
“I hear them through the guitar and through the drums and through the bass, so it’s kind of crazy because as much of this is Dan Mangan + Blacksmith, I can hear all these personalities coming through in this really interesting way.”
With the album now under his belt, Mangan + Blacksmith has a massive tour to focus on, taking them from Canada to Europe and the UK. He’ll also get to live out his lifelong dream of playing at Massey Hall in Toronto. I ask if he’ll be heading down to Australia anytime soon.
“I fucking hope so! It’s been a really long time. We do have some plans loosely to get back. They’re not quite imminently, but later on this year. I miss it over there. I’d love to get back down and play some shows. I feel like it’s been way too long.”
But for now, we’ll just have to content ourselves with the extraordinary album that Club Meds is. In the age of insipid and saccharine pop-anthems, Club Meds stands apart, providing sweeping medleys full of depth, experience and emotion. It’s perhaps the most mature piece of music and song crafting to come from Mangan and his collaborators to date.