Every album anniversary tour is also about the march towards death. Ben Gibbard is no longer the baby-faced up-and-comer who made Transatlanticism and Liz Phair is no longer the romantically frustrated 25-year-old who made Exile in Guyville, but they’re still bringing these milestone albums on tour, inviting us to reflect on how they’ve changed and we’ve changed and everything’s decayed in the years since we first heard them. We’re all getting closer to the grave, but at least “Fuck and Run” still bangs.
Kevin Drew, of Broken Social Scene fame, has spent the past year negotiating the same nostalgic mindfuck, performing 2002’s You Forgot It in People in full to audiences for whom “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl” and “Lover’s Spit” were as formative as Sgt. Pepper’s. If that record’s 20th trip around the sun made you feel old, how do you think Drew feels? Now, after revisiting the creative output of his twenties, he returns to the unsettled present on a short, grayscale solo record that’s literally titled Aging.
If Drew’s 2007 debut, Spirit If…, was a solo album in name only—billed as “Broken Social Scene Presents,” with swelling arrangements featuring many of Drew’s bandmates—Aging is the real thing. Shorn of the communal spirit that courses through BSS’s records, these are brooding, synth-heavy dispatches from middle age. “My skin is cold/I’m not aging right,” the 47-year-old croons on “Awful Lightning,” a six-minute centerpiece that wrings slow-burning drama from Hauschka-like piano arpeggios.
Drew has long excelled at writing emotionally resonant songs even when you don’t have a clue what he’s singing about. (SongMeanings.com commenters will crack “Shampoo Suicide” as soon as the cops find Jimmy Hoffa’s body.) But Aging was written as Drew grappled with the loss of friends and mentors, and death has a way of nudging songwriters towards the blunt and direct. At times, it’s disarming to hear him singing to us so plainly about his troubles.
On the burbling, melancholy “Elevators,” his deepening baritone sounds uncannily like Matt Berninger as he puts a cosmic spin on grief: “Elevator please change your name/Because they’re coming for me tonight/And my friend died.” “Party Oven” summons the nocturnal musings of a guy wondering if a lifetime of debauchery was all worth it. The stirring song captures a lot of feeling in few words; when Drew sings, “We partied into your grave/Was that okay?” you can detect grief and guilt mingling together.
These are evocative late-night brooders, but the record’s sense of loss and vulnerability is too often neutralized by its bland MIDI-piano sheen. Drew flirts with synth pop on “All Your Fails” and “Fixing the Again,” but the arrangements are simultaneously too plain and too fussy: groaning synth pads and film-score piano that mush together without any real tension or drama. If those tracks are nondescript, “Don't Be Afraid of the Dark” is dismaying, a cloying attempt at Auto-Tune balladry that functions as the album’s nadir. The dour production forms an unflattering contrast with the eccentric instrumentation and dynamic bursts of those early BSS classics Drew has been revisiting on tour.
For an album as self-consciously downbeat and reflective as this one, Aging ends on an optimistic note. On “You’re Gonna Get Better,” Drew emerges from the storm and seems to be offering counsel to a friend mired in addiction or depression: “No matter how hard you fell there/I know you can get back soon,” he sings over downcast synths. It’s a song that makes explicit the purpose people find in getting older and living through rough times. You can look someone in the eye and say: I survived, and you can too.
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