can see I’ve come unprepared. I should have an analogy at hand. This is new media after all. Spencer Krug is to what was that as Dan Boeckner is to come again. I could have played the false Irish Troubadour (check the choruses of “They Took a Vote and Said No” and “The Men Are Called Horsemen There”) against the Son of the Soil (listen to the tribal ululations on “Hearts of Iron” and “Dumb Animals.”). Man, that could have been sweet.
The truth is I made the mistake of comparing the two Wolf Parade songwriters in their solo outfits—Boeckner as Handsome Furs to Spencer Krug as Sunset Rubdown—for the first month of listening to Plague Park. And somewhere in the papery husk of “What We Had,” I realized the comparisons were only really useful for the introduction to this review, and thus, not very useful at all. As tempting as it is to take sides or scrutinize the thickness of these two very hairy poesies, it’s clear that as solo acts, they’re mining distinct sounds that really only bear coupling under the Wolf Parade moniker. Or as Krug himself has said in the past, their solo pursuits are no less important to them than Wolf Parade is.
And, for the most part, Plague Park sees the cryptic songwriter and composer in Boeckner live up to the talent so evident from his ‘other’ project. Begun as a duo in late 2005 with fiancée Alexei Perry, Handsome Furs toured before they’d recorded a single song—joining Fonal outfits like Paavoharju and Islaja and even Modest Mouse on the road before heading to Wolf Parade’s studio with Arlen Thompson to record Plague Park. As a writer, it’s hard not to get drawn into Boeckner’s carnivorous sense of wording immediately. He’s always lived up to the beast in Wolf Parade, and now, all but alone, his is a noise that’s kind of blasphemous in its end of days charm. In fact, for most of the record, it’s hard to believe there were only two bodies at work for so much sound. Beneath woolen blankets of guitar—the kind that really scratch—electronics, and fat-assed drum-machine beats, he slurs cryptic lines so vaguely anthemic they’d look really strange on a sign of protest. I mean, what’s there to chant? What to scrawl? “Black out a million screams”? “Oooh-ooooh life is long and hollow”? Unless prepping Flavor Aid for Jonestown, how can you rally to that?
Perhaps thankfully, that isn’t a question Boeckner answers directly. Instead, he gives Plague Park a reach, both musically and lyrically, for the national soundtrack edges of Springsteen or the Arcade Fire, with some of the geekshow tricks of Man Man. For the most part, Handsome Furs are dim and enshrouded, maybe issued from some pitched tent existence after whatever else. He’s fond of animal references. He likes to dip himself in mud. There’s “Handsome Furs Hate This City”—a somber swipe of grey skies infused in Berlin Bowie—to set the end. An electro torch song the way the Fiery Furnaces do them, but on the other side of levity. And then, short on its heels, “Sing! Captain” summons Springsteen’s clapboard sense of songcraft. After an acoustic guitar intro, Boeckner piles static and almost unnoticeable rhythmic pulses against the start, before pulling back clean. His voice is nude, a rarity. He seems to trip over his own lyrics (or make YOU trip) before he cleans himself up and offers something startlingly simple, like, “If they’re cold / Then they’re cold / Feed them wire / Feed them chrome / We hate this place here / It’s our home.”
With Boeckner, such sentiments have always emphasized his eccentric mode of resistance; it’s no fist in the air, but something rustling in the shadows. His is a bleak redemption more than a casting of grudges, a way of accepting your seat with “please” and “madame” while your pockets are filled with cyanide. And it makes for odd critique. Is this just the angst of the odd man out? We’ve really almost had enough of that. Simple protest by acidic art? For him, it can sometimes be both without answering either’s obvious needs, spilled out in a sheet of foam that somehow maintains its melodicism.
As a title thereby, Plague Park may be a little too close to the bone. Boeckner makes his two-person howl canyonesque. It reverberates and repels despondent in so much sound—all that guitar squall and brokejaw noise in a very open but public place. With their leadfoot guitars and electronics, “What We Had” and “Hearts of Iron”—perhaps the two songs that sound the most like Wolf Parade—take on the blues like their roots were only ten years deep and borne of Canada’s great wash of white. But they are dry and parched still. You can feel the splintered lips, a great mouth for such snakeskin choir music. “Snakes on the Ladder” turns its drum-machine, laser-show electronics, and hymnal synth washes into a shallowly lit space for Boeckner to question his own odd visions, and “Dead + Rural” reverts to the epic room-sounds of “What We Had,” gargling electronics and stern guitars interplaying in a timeless reach that wouldn’t sound out of place on Born to Run.
Yet, perhaps by comparison to its highlights, Plague Park is sometimes more barren than just grim. “Cannot Get Started” fails to make more of its electronic beat and simplistic layout than a Casio workout, while “Dumb Animals,” despite its gorgeous teepee wail, and closer “The Radio’s Hot Sun” never reach the climaxes to which they clearly aspire. Their recline gets short-sheeted by what can really only be called a lack of concentration on Boeckner’s part. But that’s an unusual problem for him as Handsome Furs. Plague Park shows him mostly nailing the fine bristle of “Modern World” and “Same Ghost Every Night.” With records due later this year by both Sunset Rubdown and Wolf Parade, the Boeckner/Krug tandem has positioned itself to be forever in our sights. Unlike some other omnipresents—Ryan Adams, the Ed Banger/Kitsune aesthetes, Andy Rooney—we should welcome their return, as a pair or just as two detached Canadians gone wondrously astray.