The penultimate post in this series on my top ten albums of the decade gone by. My second favourite of the bunch, but probably the one you’ve heard me go on and on and on about the most…
In November 2010, I wrote the following on my Tumblr:
Dear Handsome Furs’ second album, Face Control,
Since we met last year, I have listened to you about 500 million times. And still you persist in being absolutely fucking excellent. What it is about you that, after no matter how many repeat listens – even multiple back-to-back repeat listens, my love for you never diminishes? I look forward to listening to you time and time again for the rest of my life.
It’s been nearly two years since then. In the interim, the band released their third album, Sound Kapital, which was great. I saw them live twice, both times excellent. And then, about three months ago, they announced that they were breaking up, which was lame. Throughout, though, my feelings for Face Control has remained exceedingly strong.
It was not always like this, however. I first listened to the album in mid-2009, not too long after it came out. This was while I was living in Hiroshima. A Canadian friend had received a package from the homeland containing three new/recent albums from Canadian artists. Face Control was one of the three.
I remembered having been intrigued by an article I’d seen on Pitchfork, a while prior to this. It wasn’t anything to do with whatever was written about their music. Nor did it relate to Dan Boeckner’s “main” band, Wold Parade, since I’d given their first album a spin before and hadn’t connected with it (…this has since been amended). It was simply – and superficially – the fact that they were a married couple. And that were full-on smooching in the photo that was included.
So when I was confronted with Face Control, with its very arresting cover art, I was quite excited about giving it a listen. And so I did. And, well, I didn’t really get it. I think I gave the first track my full attention, before letting it fade into the background of whatever day it was that I was doing this. Actually, this was pretty much the exact same thing that had happened with that Wolf Parade album. I could get into Spencer Krug’s yelping on track one and subsequently tuned out. Perhaps if I’d just hung in there for track two, which has Dan on lead vocal instead, it might have all turned out differently.
This Handsome Furs album-opener, called ‘Legal Tender’, was very simple and sparse, but also harsh and abrasive. At the time, I didn’t think this was in a good way. Which is odd now, of course, because these are the things I absolutely love about it. The beats that introduce it are quite confrontational. It broods for the verse, building expectation for an explosive chorus. But when the chorus comes, it does the exact opposite. It drops out. The explosion comes after the chorus, but it’s over quick, repeating the cycle once before it hits the climax, dead in a motel. And then it’s over. Brilliant:
The idea that, at one time, this song didn’t instantly ignite a fire in me, is now quite bizarre. I can’t help but feel a thrill when I hear it now. As much for the song itself as knowing that the next 35-40 minutes are going be excellent.
Yes, this didn’t click until January 2010. I had moved back to Ireland the previous month. I hadn’t lined up a job prior to my return, so most of January was spent looking for jobs. Which, as we all know, can be a boring and frustrating way to fill your time. It was in this context that I revisited the album. And I got it. Or it got me.
Well, probably still having lingering skepticism from that initial exposure, ‘Legal Tender’ didn’t fully get me. But then it bled into track two and that certainly did the deal. For a long time, ‘Evangeline’ was my favourite song on the album. It doesn’t change the formula too much from ‘Legal Tender’. It has a simpler beat, offset by having more complex mini-lead-guitar-break-thingies-that-Dan-likes-to-put-in-songs-a-lot. Where it bests the preceding song, though, is when it comes to its climax, following the second chorus.
There’s the requisite quiet, muted guitar bit. Then, at the two-minute mark he throws in a couple of isolated strums to start to bring things back up. And then he starts hitting one chord and holds it. And then, at the moment you expect things to change… he holds the chord for the same length of time again! It’s a great use of tension – pure edge-of-the-seat stuff. But great tension isn’t much use if there isn’t a great pay-off to follow. Thankfully, ‘Evangeline’ brings it home in a big and brilliant fashion:
I wrote before (on Tumblr again) about how the album has an incredible opening one-two combo. And how it also has an amazing closing one-two combo (which I’ll get to in a bit). And how, because of this, I sometimes forget how great the middle of the album is.
I mean, the opening and closing pairs remain the album’s four highest high-points. Relative to them, the middle doesn’t pack as impecable a punch. But it still connects pretty damn well. ‘Talking Hotel Arbat Blues’, the New Order-referencing ‘All We Want, Baby, Is Everything’ and ‘Nyet Spasiba’ all rock solidly – and in similar ways.
The album’s three “vignettes”, ‘(Passport Kontrol)’, ‘(White City)’ and ‘(It’s Not Me It’s You)’ may seem like cursory additions, but they’re integral to the flow of the album – and each have their individual charms too.
Sitting right in the middle of all this is ‘I’m Confused’, probably the most well-known track off the album – thanks in large part to its memorable zombie-horror video (with its man-this-would-be-exceptionally-weird-if-you-didn’t-know-they-were-married ending):
It’s an absolute stomper of a track. Leading in with that ominous, buzzing synth (not nearly as long on the album as it is in the video), only to have that jerking, hurtling beat crash into it. Dan’s vocal is especially good on this one too. I ended up (recently) attempting a one-take acoustic cover of the track. Even without the beat, the blistering lead guitar and that it’s me performing it, the quality of the song itself is evident there too. It’s just a great song.
The relative black sheep of the bunch for me is ‘Officer of Hearts’. It’s longer and slower than anything else on the album. While a shift in gears of some kind is usually welcome on every album, this one comes across as being somewhat aimless. And at nearly six minutes in length, it sort of outstays its welcome. Not that I don’t like it. I just don’t love love love it the way I do the rest of the album.
Still, it – along with ‘(It’s Not Me It’s You)’ to follow – does serve to cleanse the palate before things ramp up for the aforementioned closing brace of brilliance.
‘Thy Will Be Done’ bounces playfully – almost the polar opposite to the plodding of ‘Officer…’. Structurally, it’s probably the most straightforward track on the album, devoid of the left-field twists that crop up else where. Its simplicity is its charm though. It goes straight for the gut, no unnecessary embellishments or frills. And it sets things up perfectly for the grand finale.
Like many last songs on albums, it took me a while to fully appreciate ‘Radio Kaliningrad’. I believe a lot of this comes down to my insistence of listening to albums in full, in order. That’s not an unusual habit, I suppose. But it has often led to cases where, having not specifically allotted time to listen to a full album, or getting interrupted, or listening to music as I fall asleep, I literally miss out on the later tracks. There’s also situations where I fall more instantly in love with earlier tracks on the album and end up skipping back and repeating them, taking up valuable listening-to-the-rest-of-the-album time. That happened with ‘Evangeline’ in this case. Another example, which was happening around the same time, in early 2010, was when I became obsessed with Yeasayer’s ‘O.N.E.’ on their second album, Odd Blood, and listened to it incessantly, delaying my eventual discovery of ‘Grizelda’ at the end.
But I did get to ‘Radio Kaliningrad’ eventually. And where would I be without it? It’s a monumental piece of music, full of urgency, power and noise. With regards to the dynamics, it doesn’t really attempt the “let’s go quiet” trick employed by ‘Legal Tender’ and ‘Evangeline’. But instead, it just ramps up and up with each iteration, until Dan’s screaming about how “we never said goodbye, bye, bye, bye, bye…” at the end.
Earlier this year (yet again on Tumblr), I made an official declaration:
After well over 100 listens in the last couple of years (including four times in succession just there), each time loving it more than the last, I think I can safely say that this is now my favourite song in the universe of all time ever.
Can’t really give a song more praise than that. It’s only been a few months since then, but things have not changed. A superb closing to a superb album…