The Rural Alberta Advantage Departing

[Saddle Creek; 2011]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: folk rock, emo, NAIR
Others: Neutral Milk Hotel, Harlem Shakes, Saves The Day

At the end of Departing, The Rural Alberta Advantage’s sophomore album, frontman Nils Edenloff sings about god. Or at least he seems to be; the lyric is sweetly ambiguous, referring as much to rapturous memories of young sex and love as to a spiritual awakening. Conflation of spiritual and physical ecstasies is nothing new — lineage of this tradition descends from “Song of Songs,” to Songs of Innocence and Experience, to Songs of Leonard Cohen. But one holy, horny spirit, in particular, haunts The Rural Alberta Advantage. Few reviews of their 2008 debut, Hometowns, failed to mention Jeff Mangum. And though the comparison was a largely favorable one, Mangum’s reputation — his mythic sincerity — overshadowed the considerable merits of that album.

Now returning with Departing, another earnest, urgent folk-rock song cycle, the comparison between The Rural Alberta Advantage and Neutral Milk Hotel suddenly feels lazy, reductive, off the mark. Or it would, were it not for that one eroto-religious reference. Ignoring the obvious, at least for a brief moment, there is little else, aside from Edenloff’s adenoidal intensity, that connects The Rural Alberta Advantage to Mangum’s maybe-late, great project. Even vocally, the resemblance is at best superficial. If Mangum sings with a prophet’s hypnotic fervor, then Edenloff voice breaks with a more earthly passion. These are songs, not psalms or songs of songs. Departing never strives not towards transcendence but catharsis, and even that relief is fleeting.

That final song not withstanding, Departing is a hardscrabble, humanist tract. A lyric like “The hardest thing about this love is that it’s never going to last” stings enough on its own, but when followed by an alternate repetition, that the hardest thing about love “is that you’re never coming back,” the subtext of mortal futility breaks through the song’s surface. This is the Canadian hinterlands, not “Holland, 1945”; there aren’t any afterlives. If The Rural Alberta Advantage are to be believed, you have one chance, and sure enough, you’re going to blow it. Subtexts aside, these songs never strain to reach for profundity, instead zeroing in on the velocity of emotions. In just over three minutes, “Stamp” — the song in which the above lyrics appear — evokes the whiplash sensation of young love in ways that words alone could never manage. Brisk drumming doubles and then drops out, harmonies between Edenloff and keyboardist Amy Cole building into each other before snapping apart, until all that remains is a shrieking, crying, siren sound.

Focusing closely on the desperation of small town life — broken homes, drugs, and natural disasters — the Toronto band’s thematic template doesn’t make any radical departures from their debut, but they nevertheless display newfound restraint and maturity. The arrangements are reduced, scaled-back from the maximalism of Hometowns. The softer, midtempo moments — “North Star,” for one — achieve more with skittish drums and a swelling and fading piano line than they would have with moody electronics or a full-on horn section. Roger Leavens, who produced Hometowns, returns as well, and his instincts are also more surefooted here than they were in 2008. The dynamic range present on quietLOUDquiet (to repurpose a term coined by Pixies) songs like “Tornado ‘87” elevate the intimacy of the subject matter to a tragic, near-operatic level.

A breathless 32 minutes in length, Departing is over before you know it. The tense mood breaks by the end, and god is finally invoked. The religious references don’t feel dishonest, but they’re still as disappointing as a deathbed conversion. Departing, bleak as it often is, offers a firmer form of uplift than those found in deist vagaries. The Rural Alberta Advantage’s capital-E Emotions are rarely comforting, but they serve as a reminder that life, stark — and wintry — as it is, is worth feeling hurt over, that our petty, mortal passions are justified. Love might never last, but at least it’s real, which is more than can be said of any heavenly creatures.

Links: The Rural Alberta Advantage - Saddle Creek

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