Flash forward to the present and there’s some changes to the band’s setup again. The duo have left the Arts & Crafts label for their own self-titled label and Warner Music, and they have also moved from Toronto to Los Angeles. Their new album, Fear & Loneliness, comes with a conceptual focus too, following the ups and downs of a fictional unnamed cowboy actor trying to find their big break in Hollywood.
There are two things one can’t help but notice once Fear & Loneliness begins. The first is the conceptual entrance: singer Jason Couse asks, “are you coming in?” on the opening title track, as he strums away on an acoustic guitar. The pair conjure up this world, and usher you in, like a doorman opening the curtain to a staircase to a nightclub. This carries forward with the following track “Look Me in the Eyes”; as it comes into focus, the muffled beats fasten into view like you’re entering a club from outside. Wes Marskell’s frenetic and exciting drumming paired with the rockier guitar-driven hook make for a bold first impression. “Have I got your attention yet?”, Couse queries in the bridge with a smirk, like he knows full well just how strong the song is.
The second feature is the strings that are smeared across most of the tracks here. They add a cinematic edge to many songs, particularly the opening track “Fear & Loneliness”, and the nasal sweep almost has it echoing some orchestrated Bond theme as silhouettes dance about over the film’s opening credits. Elsewhere they add inventive flavours: on the slinky “Too Late” they add a disco swirl; on creative centrepiece “Shangri-Lost” they add a wintry chill to the song’s dream-like sequences; and come final track, “The Glory Days”, they sneak in under the schizophrenic drums and thick buzzing synths to usher the album to a close, and encasing the whole thing in this bookended Hollywood sound. That they match the conceptual world they create with the music to boot only adds sonic depth, should you want to start picking apart every piece.
Indeed, one can also follow the beaming highs and treacherous lows of our unnamed main character too. On “Hollywood Ending” they’re living in a dream world, pleading, “Don’t tell me it’s not going to end like a movie” as fidgety electronics and jittery drums play around Couse’s lyrics. The sounds almost come off ill-fitting, jumping from one style to another at each section, and while it might not make for an instantly appealing listening, it represents the jarring way reality and dreams fall out of sync with each other. Elsewhere, on “Shangri-Lost”, Couse bursts from a dream state to having a full breakdown in public. On “Boys Don’t” he approaches toxic masculinity over neon synths; “I know there’s a lot that I don’t know how to ask for / To be honest I don’t know what’s wrong / But I know it didn’t take long for this to come on,” he confesses, like he’s staring at himself in a seedy nightclub toilet.
This exploration of mood, anxiety, shattered dreams, nervous breakdowns, and glitzy lifestyles (and fear and loneliness, as the album title says) adds a welcome thread to follow. Centerfold had plenty of despair hiding underneath all the flash, but here everything seems more wrapped up and concise. Some tracks might not hit as well as others (the awkward, fidgety groove lost in the chunky synths on “Off the Deep” or the near-relentless repetition of “Too Late”), or not dig particularly deep as choruses go for hooks over substance, but Couse leaves plenty of nuggets in his lyrics to make for a cohesive story.
The widescreen “Cowboy Movies” tracks the mental exhaustion of keeping up appearances and how nothing prepares you for sudden anxiety attacks in everyday life. “Chasing the Fall” paints a scene of daytime lounging with just the right amount of detail. On the aforementioned “Shangri-Lost”, we can track everything slowly crumbling over some keen self-analysis (“I have this terrible habit of revising the past with / A focus on the bad shit and that kind of damage / It doesn’t ever get quite fixed”). Sometimes Couse gets a little too lost in his rhyming dictionary (“Off The Deep”, “Cowboy Movies”), but it could be said that it’s merely our unnamed actor trying to find the right words in the moment.
What helps too is that Couse and Marskell once again show off their skill of writing terrific hooks and compiling great arrangements. Most tracks have something that’ll stick in your head, be it the infectious choruses (“Look Me In the Eyes”, “Chasing The Fall”, and “Boys Don’t” being the main culprits) or the musical accompaniments (the Morricone-like guitar of “Cowboy Movies”, or the bouncy beat of “Off the Deep”). That some of the songs here have been floating about for over a year and are still enjoyable as when they first appeared speaks to their strength.
Tucked in towards the end of the album is instrumental track “Reservoir No. 4”. The string-laced number battles against modulating synths, desert-ready guitar riffs, and glistening keyboards – and also ushers in the album’s final pair of tracks. From there the slickness of the songs before is toned down, focussing more on detailing the final movements of our unnamed cowboy character. Final song “The Glory Days” urges a plea of enjoying the good times before they are gone, as he drives off a cliff. “Is it real or metaphorical?”, Couse asks playfully. Questions like this add a welcome layer of depth to the band’s flashy newer approach; the stylistic shift from their original trilogy of albums feels worth it with Fear & Loneliness. “What’s the difference?”, Couse adds deadpan. Maybe there is none, but it certainly makes the album that bit more appealing to come back and dig into again.