STEW marked the return of Papa Ghostface after a very long hiatus. It was the first PG album most people ever heard, though it was the ninth album Gord and I made as a duo, and our twenty-first album together overall if you include GWD albums, a few early cassettes, and the blink-and-you-missed-it Adam Russell Project.
If STEW was the sound of a long-dormant creative partnership lurching back to life, this album captures that partnership wheezing its dying breaths while I scream a wild eulogy.
Last time around there were a few songs I wrote alone and played almost all the instruments on, along with a few that began as ideas Gord brought to the table, but for the most part it was a shared vision, the two of us contributing in equal amount to each song’s genetic makeup and final form. We even wrote some of the lyrics together — something we’d never done before.
This time the songs fall into three distinct categories.
There are the collaborative pieces where we did it the old-fashioned way, writing or improvising the music together while the lyrics were left for me to come up with on my own (Peruvian Mountain Song, Stepping Stone on the Way to Better Things, Crawlspace Waltz, and Blue Rose).
There’s one of Gord’s babies — a song he’d been kicking around in one form or another for at least a decade (Rook). He was responsible for most of the words and music there, though I added and adjusted a few lines while contributing arrangement ideas and fleshing things out. I assumed Gord would want to step in front of the microphone for that one. For whatever reason, he seemed happier letting me sing it in his stead.
And then there are the songs Gord had nothing to do with at the writing or recording stages, that are my work alone (Pop Song #82, Conscience of the Everyman, Blinded by the Evening Sun, Prayer for Redemption, Rivulets, Born Free, Died Expensively, Winter Holds No Love, The Mind Is Not a Tapeworm, Lean Years, Just Can’t Seem to Get It Right, Actuator, Stars in the Shotgun Night, and Cessna 172 Skyhawk, Stranded). Every Angry Element features a few bursts of “noise guitar” I asked Gord to contribute but is otherwise a solo piece. And though he plays a bit on Flood and Fists, Meet Me in the Middle of the Ocean, and The Evil Angel on Your Shoulder, those are more or less solo pieces too.
So this one’s much more my own unfiltered musical vision.
If STEW got you in the door with a smile and a handshake, I like to think of this as an album that leads you into a large attic filled with strange relics and leaves you to find your way with nothing but a failing flashlight and a half-eaten bag of Pringles. It’s the longest Papa Ghostface album in seventeen years, and though it doesn’t stretch out to double CD territory, it’s a dense, far-reaching affair that makes no concessions to the listener. There’s shoegaze-folk, psychedelic weirdness, piano ballads, warped electronica, moody instrumentals, progressive alt-folk-ish-ness, and more.
Flood and Fists comes swinging out of the gate with an “ambient jazz from hell” introduction that gives way to a long, atmospheric exploration of groove and mood. Brent Lee (one of two guests) plays some phenomenal soprano sax that takes the song right out into the stratosphere. Of all the immersive PG album-openers, this one’s a personal favourite. Rook is probably the best song Gord ever brought to Papa Ghostface, on the PG album he had the least to do with by far. Proof the Music Gods still have a twisted sense of humour.
Conscience of the Everyman is the mandatory spoken word piece, moving away from the impressionism of STEW’s “Gun to the Temple” and back toward the twisted storytelling of old. If it’s the last PG “talky” there’s ever going to be, it feels like a good way to go out, poised on a knife-edge between comedy and horror. The music is as demented as the story it clothes, with some fiery processed trumpet from Austin Di Pietro (guest number two).
Blue Rose is a reminder of the intricate musical interplay we were capable of at our best, while Rivulets, Cessna, and Born Free are examples of songs I never could have recorded with Gord (I tried; he had no interest in them). It’s an interesting dichotomy, having some of our final collaborative moments sharing space with a lot of things I was only able to do on my own after breaking away from the collaboration and the limitations it was starting to impose on me.
It’s essentially a solo album with occasional appearances from Gord. You’d expect some amount of disjointedness to come out of that. Instead, I think it makes for one of the strongest albums released under the Papa Ghostface name. It might not be as immediate as STEW, and there might not be an individual song as striking as that album’s hinge-point “Remorse Code”, but there’s a different overall rhythm at work here. It’s more cumulative by design, with several songs leading directly into and out of one another so they function almost like suites.
This album is also home to some of my most adventurous electric guitar work in a while, with a lot of different textural things going on and a few spastic solos thrown in for good measure. What can I say? It felt like the time was right to rip it up a little.
I had some fun working imagery from Alain Rocha’s cover art into the songs and song titles, lending them a thematic weight that’s rare in my body of recorded work. Not that this is a concept album. I don’t really operate that way. But just as the artwork’s bright colours and emphasis on life emerging from chaos surprised me (I gave Alain free reign to interpret the album title however he saw fit), the songs followed suit, their elegiac quality ultimately giving way to a certain amount of battered hope.
It feels like a good way to put Papa Ghostface to bed. The unbridled musical insanity of old is tempered with all I’ve learned over the years, and the result is the most kaleidoscopic ride of them all.
Flood and Fists
Conscience of the Everyman
Peruvian Mountain Song
Just Can’t Seem to Get It Right
The Evil Angel on Your Shoulder
Every Angry Element
Stepping Stone on the Way to Better Things
Cessna 172 Skyhawk, Stranded
Meet Me in the Middle of the Ocean
Blinded by the Evening Sun
Prayer for Redemption
Pop Song #82
Winter Holds No Love
Born Free, Died Expensively
The Mind Is Not a Tapeworm
Stars in the Shotgun Night