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Musician Joel Plaskett, seen here in Dartmouth, N.S., on March 29, 2020, released quadruple-album 44 on April 17.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Like every other musician, Joel Plaskett was forced to reschedule his spring tour in March because of the novel coronavirus. He felt awful; his band and crew, all friends, wouldn’t get paid during an already brutal season. Then came another worry: what about the album they were going to tour behind?

Changing his new record’s release date felt audacious. But then again, the whole project was built on audacity. Back in 2008, the Juno-winning Halifax artist made a triple record called Three when he was “a spinning 33.” Earlier this year, in the final days of his 44th year, he revealed to the public that he’d spent the last few years quietly mapping out a quadruple record.

Plaskett likes a good motif. He and label Pheromone Recordings scheduled the release for the day before his 45th birthday: April 17. It packages four 11-track albums blending rock and folk as a box set, plus – if you grab one of the limited-run vinyl sets – a 45th track on a 45-rpm seven-inch bonus disc.

It is a numerologist’s dream. But it almost didn’t pan out.

Plaskett’s gotten more sentimental with age. The album was a years-long tribute to friends and family and the value of slowing down to enjoy the moment. But in March, he found himself suddenly speeding up, trying to figure out how to salvage that message. Not only had the pandemic spiked the tour he’d planned to promote the record – he wasn’t even sure he could get his hands on the finished product.

In the war between business and art – in a tough business for artists, in a moment in which all business is falling apart – Plaskett found himself fighting desperately for art to win.

The work he’d made had somehow become even more prescient. “It’s about the investigation of your interior world and your memories,” he says of 44. He took his time to make it; with audiences stuck inside during a pandemic, it’s almost like they’re living through an “enforced version” of their own interior investigations. “There’s something about the fact that we’re all being forced inward that I think is relevant. … I feel like the way the world is going to improve, and adapt, has a lot to do with the power of our imagination.”

By mid-March, Plaskett, his confidantes and business team were spending hours on the phone wrestling over the release date. He could release it when he could finally tour, but that’d screw up his mathematical odyssey. When he decided he didn’t want to change the date, he found out he might not have a choice. As the country shut down, he found out a bunch of copies were stuck locked in a Toronto warehouse.

Plenty of fans would flock to skip-what-you-want streaming services, but he wanted folks to celebrate the message of taking time to reflect and create. Some songs began more than a decade ago. He’d recorded across Halifax, the Annapolis Valley, Memphis, Nashville and Toronto with more than 30 collaborators. The album features members of his band the Emergency; his nineties power-pop band Thrush Hermit and their friends Sloan and Local Rabbits; the vocalist trio Reeny, Mahalia and Micah Smith; and even Plaskett’s young son, Xianing.

He’d put great effort into the physical package, too – including typewritten liner notes and a film photoshoot on a Cape Breton cliff and dock with longtime photographer Ingram Barss that featured a custom-designed shelf filled with mementos of the album’s inspirations.

Where 2008’s triple-record Three took a narrative journey far from home and back again, 44 recognizes that life is less linear than that. “It’s more accepting of the unfinished nature of it all,” Plaskett says. Tracks such as Matthew Grimson Songs and Brand New & Brokenhearted fill the first two records with memories of old friends and old haunts. The third record, distinctively slower and titled If There’s Another Road, grapples with how to relate to those memories and sinks into self-reflection for songs like its title track Renegade.

The fourth album is spent learning to be present – including through a cover of Strange to Be Involved, a song written by Rob Benvie, Plaskett’s bandmate in Thrush Hermit. A rift between Plaskett and Benvie helped to split the band up in 1999, though they’ve since grown, mended things and done two reunion tours. Its final lines give a glimpse into Plaskett’s new comfort in the unfinished: “It is so strange to be so involved where nothing’s resolved / and I don’t mind at all."

He’s toured in the past year with both Thrush Hermit and the Emergency, filling his mind with familiar faces and sounds seen and heard from new angles. “All that history comes flooding back,” he says, “and informs the moment that you’re in.”

That can be a consoling thought, given how far askew life’s linear narrative has gone. But at least part of Plaskett’s story has straightened out. Three weeks ago, he got 44 back on its predestined numerological trajectory, confirming it would drop on April 17, the final day of his 44th year. He sent some copies to record stores that do delivery and pickup, and put others on his web store. He did some live-streamed concerts. His dream wasn’t derailed. Art won.

“This album is a bit of a tapestry,” he says. “One thing is woven into the other. There was a back-and-forth between the art, the music and the ideas. Things appear and show up and reveal themselves over a long period of time.”

Joel Plaskett performed "Frontlines of the Hard Times" on a livestream with The Globe form his Dartmouth, N.S. studio. The Juno-winning musician says he wrote the tune honouring healthcare workers during the coronavirus pandemic just days ago.

Josh O’Kane is the author of Nowhere with You, a 2016 book on Joel Plaskett.

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