I suppose there comes a time in a lot of singer/songwriters (by that I mean artists whose main assets are their songs and their voices, who usually front either a one-man band or have simple formations) want that bigger, complete, fulfilling sound. If Mark Kozelek is anything to go by, unless you have really good lyrics or a really angelic voice, one guitar or one piano can only take you so far (indeed, unless you’re paying much attention, Kozelek’s guitar work fades into the background as a linear sound, each track feeling the same from song to song, album to album).
When Dan Mangan announced Club Meds was going to be released under the name Dan Mangan + Blacksmith, I thought about that fine line again, between wanting to find new sound vehicles for your words, and jumping into one that’s way too heavy: a rocket when all you need is a family car. Of course, it’s not like his previous album Oh, Fortune was completely sparse. In fact, it was very rambunctious in certain ways. Oh, Fortune now sounds like that bridge connecting Club Meds to his first album, Nice, Nice, Very Nice (2009). Yet even on Oh, Fortune, the tundra-like cuts seemed to be represent Dan Mangan’s sound more. On the busier tracks, instruments seemed to have their own lanes and were each allowed to develop in their own way towards the finishing line of the track. In Club Meds, they criss-cross and overlap, creating something far bigger collectively.
Mangan orchestrates masterfully, knowing when to make the music swell and recede, as in the third track ‘Mouthpiece’, where driving acoustic strumming, electric fingerpicked guitar, and light key work get swarmed over by a horde of instruments (each with finely carved space, it never feels overbearing). Then his own voice shatters into multiple tracks which are overlaid over one another. ‘A Doll’s House / Pavlovia’ takes the use of multiple tracks further, with the two songs sharing the same space, though ‘A Doll’s House’ is harder to make out. Its timid voice is buried in the deeper recesses of the track, almost like an instrument itself to lay the foundations for ‘Pavlovia’s interrogation.
It’s a markedly more expansive album with a lot more instruments on it than a standard singer/songwriter album. Each track opens up new musical ideas, keeping the album fresh. Check out ‘Kitsch’, introduced with tingles on the cymbals, and bowed guitar (for which I’m a sucker I realise, there’s something about that harsh, eerie sound that I just love swimming along with) then kept alive with its looping synths, piano jabs, and neat guitar pull-offs.
Mangan sounds tortured throughout. While his previous albums always featured him sounding assured in his delivery, the production on Club Meds can sometimes makes his voice sound more brittle, about to fall apart at the edges any time. I’d venture to say that it’s done on purpose, to reinforce the album’s imagery of the unknown, the ungraspable, and confusion. Yet, despite the dark material, co-signing the album with Blacksmith was a stroke of genius, because it’s a beautiful ride throughout.