Album Reviews

Murray A Lightburn – Once Upon A Time In Montreal

(Dangerbird) UK release date: 31 March 2023

The Dears’ frontman unveils a very personal third solo album, a “sonic audio biography” dedicated to his late father

Murray A Lightburn - Once Upon A Time In Montreal Murray A Lightburn is, of course, the leader of Canadian indie band The Dears, who have been a going concern now for almost 30 years. The band are still very much active, with their last album Lovers Rock being released in 2020, but Lightburn has also found time to carve out a solo career, with a very different sound to his band.

Once Upon A Time In Montreal is Lightburn’s third solo album, and this is a very personal project for him. It’s dedicated to his father William, a jazz musician who moved from Belize to Montreal to reconnect with his childhood sweetheart. They were married for 56 years, and he died in 2020 with Alzheimer’s disease.

After his death, Lightburn began to piece together details of his life, with the help of his mother, which eventually turned into Once Upon A Time In Montreal, which Lightburn describes as a sonic audio biography of his father. It’s a short (30 minutes, at just eight tracks long), tender tribute, with an appropriately jazzy style threaded through the album.

The opening track, Dumpster Gold, is heartbreakingly sad – Lightburn addresses the song to his father, regretting the lack of a close relationship with him, and wistfully recalling all the things he can no longer talk to him about. “It would have been so nice, exchanging words just once or twice,” runs one line.

These songs of grief are set to a muted, jazzy tone, with each track touching on a part of Lightburn Senior’s life. At one point, he embraced religion, which led to him giving up music, a tale retold in In The Kingdom Of Heaven, which utilises strings and an chiming guitar riff to build to a steady climax. Throughout, Lightburn’s voice recalls Elvis Costello, especially in his dalliances with country and jazz music.

Although it’s a downbeat record, it’s never depressing. In fact, the light guitar tones of The Only One I Want To Hear are beautifully uplifting, while the love between Lightburn’s parents is touchingly depicted. Reaching Out For Love tells of listening to John Coltrane‘s A Love Supreme, while missing a lover’s kiss, and there’s a lot of humour running through the title track.

That title track is almost a mini-biography of William Lightburn in itself – a three and a half minute tale of an immigrant moving to Canada (“I’ll learn some French – avec plasir”) and bemoaning the “freezing nights” of Montreal, but concluding that “life with you was paradise”. When the saxophone kicks in towards the end, it feels like a celebratory moment.

The beautiful Girl You’ve Got To Let Me Go concludes the record, and it’s almost as poignant and sad as the opening track – a piano ballad acting as a final message from Lightburn’s father to his mother. You can almost feel the emotion in every chord, and especially in Lightburn’s impassioned delivery.

It sometimes feels almost too personal – like you’re spying on someone’s diary as they recount their life. Yet as a study of grief, and a tribute to one man’s extraordinary life, it’s an exceptional album.

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Murray A Lightburn – Once Upon A Time In Montreal