Being a clever songwriter and also a funny one is a difficult trick to pull off over any length of time. The instant caffeinated hit of a punchline often wears off quicker than, say, a taut observation about the nature of art in a post-capitalist society or an extended rumination on the finer points of interpersonal relationships. It must be even harder coming from Canada, the country that gave us the holy trinity of super-sincere songwriters: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. And therein lies a clue. Cohen in particular has always lined his enviably poetic songs with a humour that is by turns sly, sardonic and self-deprecating. It seems that some kind of balance is crucial. Just as a profoundly ‘serious’ artist like Cohen can leaven and sharpen his observations with glimpses of wit, then musicians who start out from a comedic standpoint can benefit from infusing their work with a seam of sober insight.
The Canadian joker in question is Mathias Kom. With his band The Burning Hell he has recorded seven albums of literate, punky folk-pop. The most recent, Public Library, is easily one of the best. The eight distinct narratives rely on surreal situations, wry observations and a knack for a comic turn of phrase that would impress that other great Canada-based humorist-songwriter, Loudon Wainwright. Opener The Stranger (nothing like the Leonard Cohen song of the same name) is a rapid-fire tale of ecclesiastical murder. In terms of delivery it resembles Jeffrey Lewis channelling the vocal chords of Bill Callahan or the Silver Jews’ David Berman. Musically, it is harder to pin down. Here and throughout the album Kom’s trombone and the sax and clarinet contributed by Ariel Sharratt steer the band into Calexico territory (albeit a very hyperactive version of Calexico), while the backing vocals have almost a country-soul tinge to them, as well as traces of Street Legal-era Dylan.
But such comparisons prove fruitless where the lyrical content of the songs is concerned. Each one is worthy of more analysis than a simple review can hope to provide. The Road – perhaps the most Silver Jews-y song here, with its laconic delivery and noisy electric guitar – is a mythology of the touring band and name-checks Joni Mitchell and Cormac McCarthy. It is also the only song I know of to mention Scotch Corner service station.
Fuck The Government, I Love You – a duet between Kom and Sharratt – is an oddly touching love song that doubles up as self-referential band creation myth. Men Without Hats is a simple, joyful paean to the simple joys of pop music (with a neat Violent Femmes reference), and Good Times is a gleeful litany of public disorder and prison riots with a sing-along brass-driven coda.
In Give Up we are treated to a satisfying rebuke to positive thinking and vacuous self-help sloganeering, while Two Kings re-imagines Michael Jackson and Elvis as forest-dwelling, porch-sitting music industry survivors hiding out in Canada. Cleverest of all is closing track Nonfiction, a slow-burning meditation on the unreliability of words that cutely casts into doubt everything that has gone before. Built on a soft foundation of clarinet and piano, it concludes with an unfinished lyric and an enigmatic musical non-sequitur. As endings go it is a supremely tantalising one, and proof – if any were needed – that there is more to this anarchic, self-consciously verbose band than jokes. Public Library is an album of surprising emotional depth and musical variety.
Out Now via BB*Island & Headless Owl.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Briggins