Review – “Shabbytown” – James Irwin

shabbytownreviewed by Michael Thomas

Given what James Irwin told me when we spoke two years ago and the album cover depicting a shoveled-up road in Montreal, it wasn’t at all surprising to learn that Irwin’s terse description of the album is that this is about a “particular Montreal.” While he doesn’t hate the city, he told me being a part of the scene was tougher than it looked, and here he’s ruminating on the changing/vanishing neighbourhoods of Mile End and Griffintown.

As the album writeup on Saint Cécile says, Irwin has inhabited different musical worlds over the course of his musical career. Folk has always been first and foremost, and he injected some synth-pop into his last album, the brilliant Unreal. This album, however, opens up with some soaring guitars, and it seems the sound morphed to fit the lyrical subject matter. Shabbytown feels restless at times, but at others it can settle down for quiet contemplation.

But the beginning of the album has the aforementioned soaring guitars and it’s clear “First of May” is not a song that will sit quietly. It’s kind of bold to start this album about Montreal with the line “Doing nothing on the first of May,” and later adding “Nothing in you has to stay.” Could it be about passive acceptance of a changing city?

This is followed immediately by the nearly six-minute “Carlo What Do You Dream,” a song that never seems to rest for even a second of time. There’s scattered synths among steady drums and a relentless guitar line, and even Irwin’s lyrics never seem to stop, wondering “What are we gonna do?”

“Pink Noise” and “Sweet Light (for Katherine)” are a nod back to Irwin’s Western Transport days, slower acoustic songs that seem ready to accompany a ghost story told around a campfire. The former is especially haunting, and the line “If you leave the black harbour, you ain’t never coming back” is effective in that it’s both scary and a good metaphor for leaving a place in which you’ve spent significant time. “Sweet Light,” meanwhile, spreads out a walk in the sunset over seven minutes and it never feels like it’s going on too long.

The biggest punch in Montreal’s face is the middle-to-late section consisting of “Natural Feeling,” “Blonde Tobacco” and “Swarms.” The upbeat and groovy “Natural Feeling” begins with Irwin singing “It’s a cruel fantasy if you don’t follow through/To pull someone along with the promise of welcome,” which seems a pointed jab at music scenes that aren’t as supportive as they seem. “Blonde Tobacco” sounds like a cowboy song, but as it goes on an extended metaphor about trying to leave an island but only being able to get so far, being pulled back by the current and then longing to swim out again, you can tell what he’s getting at.

“Swarms” is the other excellent song on the album, with a catchy synth riff that’ll stay with you long after the song is over. Irwin sings about doubt and not believing in things, and later: “Someone’s already got your name, someone’s already got your face, start looking for a way out.” Cruel but honest.

Montreal is romanticized quite a bit, just like Toronto and Vancouver can be, so it’s interesting to hear Irwin take a very different look at the city that means so much to so many people. Though only eight songs, Shabbytown covers a lot of ground and thematic material for an album recorded over only four days. It’s musical rich and will make you question everything you love about your town.

Top Tracks: “Carlo What Do You Dream”; “Swarms”

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good) + *swoop*

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