Saturday, March 5, 2016
City and Colour - The Hurry and the Harm
That was me on one of the many, many nights where City and Colour’s debut album, the gorgeously elegiac Sometimes, served as my primary soundtrack. For whatever reason, I never heard of Dallas Green before that summer, the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, where I lost myself in a haze of adolescent longing, sad songs, and endless, sweltering, alcohol-drenched nights. Sometimes, which consists almost solely of Green’s flawless tenor voice, a bucket of reverb, and a lone acoustic guitar, had actually released nearly three years earlier, on Halloween 2005. But as serendipity would have it, Sometimes, the single most depressing break-up album I've ever heard in my life, didn’t make its way onto my iPod until the last day of my junior year, just in time to lend its mournful voice to my own doomed romance and my own bout with blistering heartbreak. I’m still trying to figure out if that was the record that kept me alive or the record that plunged me deeper into my own sadness than I ever wanted to go. Either way, what those listens did, those late nights spent shouting along to the climax of "Hello, I'm In Delaware" at the top of my lungs, was assure me of two things: first, that my childhood was over; and second, that I would never be able to view the music of City and Colour in rational terms again.
It’s taken me a solid week to write this review because, for a long time, I just didn’t know what I wanted to say. By the time I was listening to Sometimes on those late summer nights, the second City and Colour record—2008’s Bring Me Your Love—was already out. 2011 brought another one, Little Hell, but to me, they might as well have been written by a different person. Green’s angelic tenor was still there, but I felt like there was something about the raw, emotional, bruising power of Sometimes that he was never going to be able to duplicate again. And I’m not sure I wanted him to duplicate it either, since hearing Sometimes still has the power to stop me in my tracks and make my stomach and chest feel like they’re about to burst. But Little Hell especially struck me as hollow and sterile. It seemed like Green had traded the emotion of his music for slick production values and unnecessary new layers, and while the songs sounded great, they meant nothing. At least to me.
The Hurry and the Harm restores my faith in the Canadian singer-songwriter, and it doesn’t do it by dropping the direction of the last few records or going back to the spartan arrangements of Sometimes. No, The Hurry and the Harm works because, at last, the layers and smooth production elements feel like they’re natural ingredients within the music rather than additions that Green tacked on in the studio just because he could. Take the gorgeous alt-country slide guitars on the title track, the mountainous bass beneath “Harder Than Stone,” the dreamy ambiance surrounding “Of Space and Time,” or the plentiful flourishes of pedal steel that appear constantly throughout the record. Almost unanimously, it’s hard to imagine these songs without the muscular arrangements and nuanced layers Green has outfitted them with.
One of my biggest issues with the City and Colour project is the inconsistency of the albums it has produced. Even Sometimes, a record I count among my all-time favorites, has at least two misfires. Bring Me Your Love, meanwhile, contained a handful of great songs, but suffered from a scattershot tracklist that lacked any semblance of flow, theme, or uniformity. And Little Hell was plagued by Green’s poorest songwriting to date and by a series of bizarre arrangements that didn’t always fit the songs to which they were attached. From start to finish, The Hurry and the Harm feels far more organic and fully-realized. Where Bring Me Your Love could have been a demo tape or a b-sides collection, this record bears a consistency and polish in sound and feel that is unprecedented in the City and Colour catalog. For the first time since the debut, it really feels like Green hashed out a start-to-finish album rather than just a set of disconnected songs, and that fact makes all the difference.
That’s not that there aren’t weak tracks here: penultimate number “The Golden State” is pleasant enough, but gets derailed by lyrics that could have been ripped straight from a California tourism brochure, while “Death’s Song” ends the album on a disappointingly repetitious note. But even with its whimper of a conclusion, The Hurry and the Harm feels like the most complete album Green has ever released under the City and Colour moniker. There’s a pleasant west coast, Mellow Mafia feel to these songs, not unlike the territory that John Mayer mined so successfully on last year’s Born and Raised, and it’s absolutely blissful. During the record’s best songs—namely the first five tracks and the deliriously radiant lullaby that is “Take Care”—you can almost feel the warm breeze of Malibu nights, the gentle caress of its waves, the slight mist of the sea water as a warm breeze tosses it off the ocean and into your face. There are moments throughout the record that risk more: the distorted buzz-saw guitar riff of “Thirst,” for instance, or the pitch-black “Two Coins,” which repurposes the intro chords of Sometimes “Like Knives” as the roots of a cinematic thriller. But as has always been the case with City and Colour, this record is at its best when it forgoes sonic evolution for the bare bones simplicity of human emotion and the warm, gentle wash of pleasant nostalgia. Less about the hurry, you might say. More about the harm.