In a year that has already featured well-received releases by Andrew Bird, Beirut and Bat For Lashes, Patrick Watson shouldn’t feel as alien to the music-buying public or as alienated by the music that surrounds him. Experimentalism, the avant-garde, innovation, call it what you will; this lot are mavericks only in the context of popular music.
A vanguard’s trick is to marry a sense of adventure with the restraints of palatability. Wooden Arms sees Watson achieve this more successfully than with previous outings. Although Just Another Ordinary Day and Close To Paradise’s complex imagery showcase Watson’s love for film (the band formed for a movie soundtrack), neither exhibit Wooden Arms’ greater sense of structure and definition.
California-born, Canadian-raised Watson the band leader is, as we have already established, not your average singer-songwriter. He isn’t really a singer-songwriter at all; in fact, he fronts a band to which all members equally contribute. The band name was meant to be temporary, but it ended up sticking around.
In a bizarre way, this has probably done Watson and his troupe a favour. While the band would be the first to highlight their unique charms, being grouped with with likes of Rufus Wainwright, Andrew Bird, Beirut and Sufjan Stevens isn’t such a cross to bear. Neither should Watson feel embarrassed by such close referencing. Wooden Arms is as bold and intriguing as any of its peers, combining a fearless pursuit of originality with a taste for the obscure and the macabre.
Obscure and macabre is exactly how the album starts, before the band’s familiar, ethereal folk breaks through what, musically at least, feels like the fraught opening scenes of a Michael Mann film. Brush strokes and the delicate, whispered quavers of Watson greet you until Fireweed’s crescendos into something more akin to the work of Danny Elfman. Capturing your attention almost instantly, it isn’t long before Wooden Arms submerges you with its surrealism. How often a memorable opening track prefaces a memorable album.
Although tempered, Watson’s music still bears a characteristically filmic predisposition and its composition and production is appropriately meticulous. The epic Beijing, which could easily pass as an Olympic Games opening ceremony overture, illustrates this point perfectly. A rhythmic piano melody backed by strings is soon overrun by what appears to be a slightly unhinged cavalcade of Chinese drummers.
Like that other famous forager Zach Condon, Watson is able to incorporate a sense of culture and geography into his music. He’s also as mad as a hatter, which helps Watson construct eccentric songs around everything from lonely travelling salesmen to improperly-housed birds.
Watson’s zany exploits are interwoven with carefully measured doses of melancholy. The title track’s eerie, otherworldly lament is followed by Hommage’s beautifully-timed instrumental elegy, which acts as convenient album interlude. Despite its lulls, the majority of the album operates in a place between melancholy and somewhere more hopeful. Tracy’s Waters, the first single from the album, exhibits this odd feeling of emotional contrariety, occasionally reminding of Radiohead‘s In Rainbows.
Even if some of Wooden Arms’ outlandish junctures require more than just a cursory amount of attention and even if you have little chance of piecing together Watson’s abstract lyrical forays, that’s even more reason to get lost in this fantastical wonderland.
With previous albums you would have been forgiven for thinking this was a solo project that had been cleverly embellished in post-production. Wooden Arms, on the other hand, bears the sound of something far more collaborative and just that little bit more complete. Our refound love for musical vanguards should therefore also extend to Patrick Watson.