by Grady Mitchell | Dan Mangan returns with a new identity, Dan Mangan + Blacksmith, and a new album, Club Meds. Gone is the cutesy folk musician who gained fame with a track about robot love. In his place is a thoughtful, darkly meditative group.
First, the new name. Blacksmith is Mangan’s band, most of whom contributed to his two previous albums, 2009’s Nice, Nice, Very Nice and 2011’s Oh Fortune. The addition is an overdue acknowledgement, Dan explains, of the band’s essential role in the music. “It started to feel a little bit misrepresentative of what we had become,” he says of the solo moniker.
The core of Blacksmith is Gordon Grdina on guitar, Kenton Loewen on drums and John Walsh on bass, with JP Carter, Jesse Zubot and Tyson Naylor frequently joining in on an orchestra’s worth of other instruments. The name, Kenton says, “is sort of a romantic, historical notion; the blacksmith, the creator.” It also references the time and focus of a master honing his craft over years of study, something every member of the jazz-influenced band knows well.
After almost seven years of writing albums and touring them, the band took a well-deserved hiatus. Dan focused on scoring the film Hector and the Search for Happiness, starring Simon Pegg, and hanging out with his new son, Jude. The band regrouped in 2014 and began work on the new record.
The long studio sessions scoring Hector broadened Dan’s production skills and introduced him to countless new sounds, many of which appear in Club Meds. The album begins, in fact, with technological, inhuman noises: a robotic voice repeats an indecipherable phrase over mechanical clicks. Although the opening track, Offred, which adopts the perspective of the lead character from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, soon swells into instrumentation and vocals, the underlying technical edge is present throughout the album, battling with the organic nature of the vocals and band.
The moody, spiralling atmosphere established early on never abates. The album is an equally scalding and poetic upbraiding of modern society’s sins: greed, apathy, disconnection, hollowness. The title refers to the modern convention of addressing any discomfort, any difficulty, with sedation…chemical or otherwise. Not to say that’s always a bad approach. “You can’t take the brunt of everything all the time,” Kenton says.
“The message is, it’s fucking complicated,” Dan adds. Just as the dilemma isn’t black and white, the band’s lyrics choose a metaphoric approach rather than outright condemnation. “It’s not like everyone else is full of shit and I’m not,” he says. “I see it in myself constantly, and I think that’s where a lot of this writing comes from; I’m poking holes in society, but I’m poking holes in myself; I feel all these things in me all the time.”
“All shades of grey Kool Aid,” Kenton adds with a laugh.
“It’s like high school,” Dan continues. “As long as you can put yourself above other people, it’s fine. It’s all bullshit. I want to feel fine because I’m okay and honest and accepting of who I am. I don’t want to feel relatively fine because someone else is less fine.”
Some artists would feel nervous or vulnerable about releasing more contentious and introspective material. Not these guys. “I have way less anxiety about this record than any other, because I feel like it’s a finished thought,” Dan says. “I think it’s the best thing that I’ve ever been a part of, creatively.”
Gordon adds that it feels easier to brag about Club Meds since, really, he’s just giving props to his talented bandmates. The album is out now (you can stream it at their site). In February the band starts touring, with two Vancouver dates at The Vogue in March.