The Group of Seven taught us that art is something that comes to you on a northern lake, and for a long time that lesson seemed as dated as elocution classes. But a roots-minded musician may go where a hip urban painter may not, and so it came to pass that Hawksley Workman holed up in Huntsville, Ont., last winter to pull together his 11th album in as many years.
It's a heart-sore yet vigorous collection of songs about the end of love and the mess we're in, salted with playful numbers about bikes and little mosquitoes alone in a harsh world. It feels like it was made quickly, as the spirit dictated - you can hear the piano stool's creak through the opening track - but sometimes things come out fresher when they're not put through too fine a sieve, and this is one of those times.
The governing aesthetic is romantic in the open-armed, savour-it-all sense of the word.
Song For Sarah Jane faces a ruined love with the conviction that "something remains," as Workman floats a straight, memorable tune over slow-marching piano chords. French Girl in L.A. rides a dirty bass into a poppy, evocative kind of dance rock. Depress My Hangover Sunday surveys the aftermath of a night in the waning days of a relationship, and the music's terse, funky groove wrings from Workman a few ragged squeals worthy of James Brown.
You Don't Just Want To Break Me (You Want To Tear Me Apart) strings its umpteen choruses together all at the end, as Workman's excitable voice climbs a stairway to an acid-rock apotheosis with gospel choir. And the Government Will Protect the Mighty, a chunky post-bailout / Afghan war / eco-disaster blues, compresses a lot of ills into a single satisfying complaint.
The perils of working quickly may show through in Chocolate Mouth, an attractively messy tune whose lyrics seem a bit unfocused; and in Workman's occasional willingness to accept the default option. The jaunty, buzzed-out (The Happiest Day I Know Is A) Tokyo Bicycle, for example, suddenly becomes humdrum when the noodling guitar solo starts, exactly where such solos usually do.
Before this record came out, I thought Workman was chronically overextended, and maybe he is. But one good thing about being prolific is that when the muse chooses to be generous, as on this disc, you're tuned up and ready to go.
Hawksley Workman plays the Sleeman Centre in Guelph, Ont., on Feb. 6, and begins a 22-concert national tour on March 5 at the Sid Williams Theatre in Courtenay, B.C.