I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
The release of Apologies to the Queen Mary couldn’t come soon enough in 2005. I don’t think I’ve ever been as stoked for a debut album by a band – I usually get into a band mid-catalog, so it was a nice change of pace to be so closely in tune with one prior to a first full-length release. I recall downloading a promo track from Wolf Parade’s second EP, “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts,” and being absolutely floored by it. It was lo-fi and raw, and brimming with energy. The tribal chant of the chorus melody before the instruments kick in at the beginning of the song, with the band facing away from the studio microphones, primed the senses for the careening charge that followed. The singer sounded like David Bowie on a runaway bike down a steep hill. The song didn’t waste its breath either – the structure is verse-bridge-verse, nothing more. And the lyrics were a guilty treat for the mid-twenty-something (which I was at the time – look at me, dating myself) into this kind of thing: “I got a hand, so I got a fist, so I got a plan / it’s the best that I can do. / Now we’ll say, ‘it’s in God’s hands,’ / but God doesn’t always have the best goddamned plans, does he?” I felt a sneaky sort of glee at this type of philosophical musing, as who hasn’t had that young-man crisis of faith and place? And the whole thing was delivered with such power that when verse two kicks in from the bridge, the subsequent rise in energy is surprising as it already seems like the band is in the red. (One half of Wolf Parade’s dual-singer/songwriter tandem, Spencer Krug, pulls this trick off with even greater effect on “I’ll Believe in Anything.” More later.) But the EP was out of print (remedied in the intervening years by Sub Pop), so I had nothing more to go by. I simply had the promise of a possible album. They weren’t even signed yet.
Then word started trickling out, first that Wolf Parade had signed to Sub Pop (a no-brainer, especially considering Krug and other vocalist Dan Boeckner started out in Vancouver, BC, before relocating to Montreal), then that Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock would produce the record. (Boeckner’s previous band, Atlas Strategic, had opened some shows for Modest Mouse in the past.) Finally. All news sounded like good news to me, and the expectations were ratcheted to hyper levels. An advance EP came out with two tracks that would appear on the album (“You Are a Runner” and “Shine a Light”) as well as two non-album tracks (“Lousy Pictures,” which I had already heard on a CBC radio session, and “Disco Sheets,” one of very few tracks I hadn’t heard in one form or another before the record’s release – yeah, i tracked down the EPs). Jackpot – everything was wonderful. Fortunately, the album release was right around the corner, because I was through the roof with anticipation, and the band did not disappoint.
First listen, then full immersion – Apologies explodes out of your speakers right from the get-go as drummer Arlen Thompson’s kick and snare shake the floor, followed by the rest of the band lurching like an army of Super-Frankensteins through the half-time “You Are a Runner,” Krug’s poetic call to connect to a friend or partner, the song’s subtitle revealing the underlying emotional barricade: “And I Am My Father’s Son.” The track sets the stage for the type of emotional disconnect and disillusion that the mid-twenty-something set were wrestling with. “Modern World” follows, Boeckner’s first contribution springing from a creepy acoustic guitar line, and begins “I’m not in love with a modern world,” pining about exactly that and lamenting to it “you just bring me down.” By Krug’s next song “Grounds for Divorce,” despite its cheery demeanor and playful pop keyboards and guitar, it’s pretty clear – as if the title wasn’t a dead giveaway – that the record is decidedly about coming to grips with this overwhelming sense of disconnection – from family, from friends, from an old life, from maturity, from expectation. In fact, by track four, Boeckner’s back with what seems like the companion piece to how he feels about “Modern World,” “We Built Another World” (see, there’s a theme). In it, there’s a great sense of shaking the current world he inhabits, violently casting it off (“I made a loud sound and shook some teeth!” he bellows to begin verse two) for a place where he “hangs ghosts from the trees.” Not surprisingly, ghosts make several appearances throughout the album, again in Boeckner’s “Same Ghost Every Night” and “Shine a Light,” and Krug’s “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” and “I’ll Believe in Anything” (“Your blood, your bones, your voice, and your ghost.”) These spectres, the memories of some long-gone love or relation, haunt their singers, their presence replaced by the ugly guises of guilt and regret.
What elevates Apologies to the Queen Mary into the upper echelons of 2000s indie rock albums (and I’d argue for its top 10 status) as opposed to wallowing in self pity is the unbridled energy and ravenous songwriting. I mean, there are plenty of sad sacks with acoustic guitars (or, fine, even bands) who can mope and write about it. But Wolf Parade taps into this primal energy and combines it with hook after succulent hook to transcend the doldrums. Yeah, the band members are disillusioned young men writing for the disillusioned, but they scratch and claw through flesh and bone to the beating and bloody heart, hold it up for all to see, and vow to honor it, as well as the memories of those who have left them (or whom they have left). It’s such an everyman concept – and when the band really lets loose, the concepts are transformed to raw, fist-pumping, crowd-shaking, life-altering anthems we all can scream in indignation at the heavens or the earth or whatever is holding us back. These are the songs that are built to define people, to soundtrack real life, songs like Boeckner’s “Shine a Light” (“You know our hearts beat time out very slowly / You know our hearts beat time, they’re waiting for something that’ll never arrive), Krug’s “Dear Sons and Daughters…” and “I’ll Believe in Anything.” These hymns for the downtrodden are perfectly composed for maximum energy. “I’ll Believe in Anything” follows a similar track as “Dear Sons and Daughters” as there’s a defining split, the keyboard and guitar melodies of the beginning taking cue from Krug offering to take away pain (“And I could take away the shaky knees, and I could give you all the olive trees”) by relocation – imploring his lover to “look at the trees, and look at my face, and look at a place far away from here” – and crashing in heavenly power chords, the unbridled energy of the first half of the song ratcheting up higher than you thought possible. It still raises goosebumps on my arms and tingles my spine.
Boeckner has his true anthemic moment at the very end of the album, as “This Heart’s on Fire” closes it with great hope. He repeats the title over and over, his declarations interspersed with other lyrics, some that bridge the gap of transition (“Sometimes they rock and roll / sometimes they stay at home and that’s just fine”), some are frustrated (“I don’t know what to do”). And yet “It’s getting better all the time,” as this last track sprints to a close, “This heart’s on fire! This heart’s on fire!,” brimming with catharsis, and we all know that it’s true, that our hearts are on fire as well, that we’re young and ready to take on whatever the hell comes our way because we are full of spirit and life and nothing will stop us. Even if it’s not what we expect, or if it’s something we don’t want, we’re still going to plow ahead. The sentiment is so beautiful and true, and it’s a fitting end to a song cycle so unsure of life and one’s place in it. It makes me want to live as best I can, and that’s a high compliment.
I can’t help but end this by saying that this is a real transitional album and perfect for fall – throw it on when the weather gets cooler, it’s the ideal time. Also, I get this overwhelming urge to dance like Teen Wolf during Boeckner’s “It’s a Curse.” Is that just me?
RIYL: David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Modest Mouse