THERE’S a very strong argument to be made, in the sphere of the more introverted singer-songwriter and that of Americana, that the best music is the living music, the real music, captured in the moment, not fussed with in any way – far removed from the sheen and multi-tracking and the endless possibility of the modern studio.
I mean, think Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago; the legendary Wisconsin hunting cabin album which stands so tall over 21st-century American songwriting, and which for my money he’s never got close to again.
Think also Hiss Golden Messenger’s beautiful, intimate Bad Debt, his 2010 album that included such beautiful studies as “The Serpent Is Kind (Compared To Man)” and “Little Light”, a record of both potency and hush, recorded at his kitchen table in North Carolina while his then one-year-old som Elijah slept next door. Both of these albums have a quality, a vibrancy, that money just can’t buy; in fact, quite the reverse.
Which is a neat dovetailing in the sense of young children and warm, songwriting intimacy with the new album from the beautiful Canadian act, Dusted. Entitled III, it owes its existence to Brian Borcherdt’s newborn daughter, as his life changed – fatherhood, a new home.
In the midst of a series of 24-hour drives moving his wife, newborn and all their worldly possessions from Toronto to Nova Scotia, which eastern coasts Brian had left many years before, and each a journey of 1100 miles, he unearthed a set of songs on a beaten-up old laptop with congealed kiwi fruit pulp blocking the mic output. Rough sketches, maybe; but with life whirling around him in upheaval, huge with resonance.
Listening to the demos on those exhausting transcontinental road trips, he heard himself as was. “I was struck by how much of it was about letting go. It was a time capsule of the most important parts of me. It was all the lost friendships, the let-downs, the things that turned sour,” Brian explains.
“I woke one morning, realising I had been dreaming about an old, forgotten song. Why had it come back to me? As I dug through my apartment looking for reminders I realized the more important question was ‘why was it forgotten?’
“Plugging in my old laptop, whose battery no longer worked, I was struck by two things: the laptop was a piece of shit on it’s death-legs and it was full of forgotten songs.
“For years I carried these songs around with me, intending to record them all in time. Listening to them that morning was fun. I was hearing someone else. Forgetting them allowed me to hear them fresh and unjudged.
“My friend Alex, singer of Metz and fellow bandmate in LIDS, had the sage advice: pick a few favourites, add them to whatever is already on the go and record it all, quick! The result was a three-day session at Palace. It was probably the easiest studio session I’ve ever done. I was back to the lessons I learned on my first Dusted record, Total Dust: keep the songs bare and unburdened. Keep the intention and emotion honest and exposed, right on the surface.
“Why had I forgotten these songs? It was possibly a survival mechanism. I suppose it had to do with two previous records going over schedule. Holy Fuck’s Congrats took years; the previous Dusted record, [2018’s] Blackout Summer, that had to be entirely scrapped and started over. A friend and would-be producer helped steer it totally off course, clicking songs to a grid, over-editing vocals, sample replacing, drenching tracks in plug-ins. It was exactly the record I didn’t want to make. Unfinished songs ended up exorcised from my mind in order to move on. I had to wonder if becoming a parent was part of it.
“It was more than song ideas on those demos: Anna’s voice suggesting names for our new kitten. Our dog’s nails clicked on the hardwood floor of an old apartment, only days after she arrived from the shelter. Holy Fuck in a flat in Birmingham It was a time capsule of the most important parts of me. It was not because of my newborn daughter that I had forgotten these songs; it was because of her that they came back.
“But yes, there is joy to this record. People have commented on it being a ‘pandemic’ record. While my gut says that it isn’t, after all it was written over years and mostly recorded before all this began, I realize, actually, it has unfolded in its final stages here in Nova Scotia, cut off and quite alone.
“It was all finished at the edge of a lake, mostly in the rain. The rain is even on the record, between songs, which I kept almost to prove these songs existed in that moment, in that place – like those bits of life unwittingly captured on the original demos.
“Listening to it now it sounds like the record that came with me to my new home, with my wife and daughter, so far from everything before. This record is not about letting go. It is about learning what to hold on to.”
That’s quite the backstory, candid, real, sounds like something from a Richard Ford novel – real life, lived. Played. Sung. But then, it’s quite the record, too.
It’s actually the newest song that opens III, “Not Offering”, and sets the keynote for proceedings with a Sam Beam-like confessional hush, as Brian sings: “I have given up. I have given enough”. A letting go, a forsaking, delivered with evocative beauty, downhome guitars strumming, Brian in counterpoint with himself in an echoing delicacy and this delicate swoop of tone behind, a gentle touch of Americana-shoegaze, almost. “I don’t want to say anything too specific about that song’s meaning,” he comments, with a little mystery.
“I will say it was in my head a lot as I was driving the rented moving truck back and forth from Toronto to Nova Scotia. It was all the lost friendships, the let-downs, the things that turned sour. It felt suddenly more relevant as I was moving our worldly possessions on those twenty-four hour drives, only taking breaks to sleep hunched over a cooler with my dog next to me. Letting go is a hard thing to do!” Ain’t that the truth. And ain’t this the truth, delivered with placid candour and an embracing fragility. The song clacks to an abrupt end as the pause button is depressed.
“Baseball” shimmers with organ and a third-person miniature: “I never felt that low / But don’t repeat it, no one needs to know” tells Brian-as-droll-teller of a time when the main character was sleeping with a baseball bat. Not so sportingly wholesome as the title might suggest, then. If you loved East River Pipe, you’ll sure as hell swoon for this, especially when the brass curlicues all Elephant 6-like.
“Cedar Tree” is demo-blurry, a wishful nugget of string-squeak and heartfelt yearn delivered in a dusk room. “They Don’t Know You” combines the gleam of what sounds to be a Fender Rhodes electric piano, that characteristic heat haze, teamed with a gently brushed guitar, everything wrapped up in midnight highway reverb and timelessly classy in the vein of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” – which, you know, that’s entirely complimentary; it’s sensual, romantic; and then Brian’s voice soars sky-high in emotion and wont and need and all those human things which can’t really be expressed in words, so he dispenses with them for a soulful cry, an offering to … whoever might listen and intervene for the better. The song ends with a coda of room sound and tape hiss. Hit. Hell, even better, we can embed this one as sneak preview for you, so let’s.
Brian says of this album highlight: “A friend of mine recently commented that with each chorus of ‘They Don’t Know You’ he heard the meaning subtly change. ‘They don’t know you … they don’t know you like I do’. At once it is tender, empathetic and yet it is also cautionary. To know someone on a deeper level is to know their dark side. This song was written for my hometown of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia at a time when I never thought I’d go back yet also felt its pull.
“I wrote the second verse for my mother. Her and I pulled off the highway for gas as we were leaving Marion County, Indiana … we were cleaning out her childhood farmhouse after her mother died. She looked back at the highway from the gas pumps and said, ‘You know, I may never come back’.
“Little More Time” is a simple enough and universal plea for more, more from this lover, as the sands sift and the clock ticks; but delivered with this untrammelled truth and sweet beauty, this elegiac arrow, you can’t help but fall for it. Three chords and a guitar really are all you need when you’ve got it, and Brian has the songcraft it a-plenty. Hear his voice crack and know he’s not singing this for cars ‘n’ girls, but because he understands the power of song. “Mountain Top” pushes deeper into a doomy Americana of deep thought, atmospheric observation of lives lived off the national highways, all pitch-black parking lots, cardboard backdrops and crucial questions evaded. It’s the control that Brian brings to his material, his understanding of sonic economy – when to unleash, when to hold – that brings so much power.
“Bide My Time” is a pretty fragment, our singer casting around for catharsis and a way out, and it’s gone oh so soon, stepping aside for the spare, cloud-banked conjuration of “Wash My Hands Away”, folk-soul hums and sterner bass-string thrum; another chronologically-concerned tune drawing a link to Cheval Sombre‘s pair of similarly focused albums from earlier this year. It’s so full of resonance, emotional and aural; gently chilling in a 3am empty whisky tumbler way, no longer able to put off the advancing dawn. It falls apart in an entirely correct way, a creak, a sudden awareness of a string minutely off-pitch and studio chatter; again, it’s so much more communicative and real that Brian chose a beautiful take with an imperfect truncation.
“Erik” is Americana-minimal, Low with the amps muted, minor-chord intervals, with all this space for you yourself to flood into. Here is part of the finesse and beauty of the Dusted aesthetic: he sketches out a world which you’d recognise, but also invited you to come in and apply your own memories and emotions to the whisper and the echo and the pen strokes, shaping the space of the song. “Even when it all makes sense / It makes no difference,” Brian sings, with a quietly detached female harmony in behind.
“Recovery Cone” sees us looking out through that tube that stops us itching away at a sore spot that’s healing, has the spiritual weight and light touch of Sufjan, the rainy-day articulation of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and propels forward into a crisper, synth-warmed space, coloured with the gentle fires and russets of fall leaves. It seems so easy and deft, the way the song shifts gears to reveal an inner pop stormer of sorts, then backs away again as taillights fade. It’s followed by the plaintive interiority of “Clouds”, a tear in a shining eye in the next room, a pinhole camera silhouette of a song, grainy and powerful and suggestive; a dozen lovely little wonders end in “Palmer”, muted, thumbed strum, the consciousness interstitial nature of much of the album illustrated brilliantly in the lyrics, half-dreaming, partially awake, unsure of what part might constitute what, he sings: “I was unaware I was asleep … I always felt for you, but that feeling’s gone,” he sings of the end of the affair.
Change can often beget further change and unearth the buried, the put-away and the archived, for good or bad. Brian’s move a thousand miles across Canada precipitated the discovery of a cache of songs that so deserved to see the light of day, perfumed with dusk and autumn, of small triumphs and the daily tightrope of keeping it all together, these fragile lives we build prey at every turn to loss, alteration, turmoil. That he can create a record of such quietude and beauty is testament to his skills in wielding a guitar, keys and the pen. It reminds me of another great elegiac classic, East River Pipe’s The Gasoline Age; the beauty of the moment and the small universal vignette carries so much power on both albums.
III is an album for an evening on the porch putting the world to rights with a selection of your nearest and dearest, for an evening of conviviality in the face of it all; conscious of how it can shatter, glad that it hasn’t, revelling in connection and the power of hushed music.
Dusted’s III will be released digitally, on CD, on trad black and on limited edition smoked coloured vinyl on July 23rd; you can order your copy over at Bandcamp now.