The last six years have been a steady ascent for Arkells into the forefront of the Canadian rock scene, with little wonder why. Fusing the infectious pop hooks of 80s mainstays like Hall & Oates and The Cure with gritty indie rock, the band has created a sound that thrives live. But it’s the critical storytelling eye of a young Bruce Springsteen — born in the steel town ghosts of Hamilton — that sets the band ahead of the pack.
On High Noon, the band’s third full-length release, Arkells are looking for, as the name suggests, a confrontation: with societal injustices; with their own hearts; and with their inner demons. As vocalist Max Kerman recently explained to the Huffington Post:
The expression ‘high noon’ has a confrontational feeling to it, and lyrically we are taking some political ideas head on. A moment of great reckoning also brings clarity, and — whether it’s social politics or the politics of love — I think we get to the heart of the matter on this record.
The band has always captured the disenfranchisement and smile-through-the-struggle spirit of youth, but on High Noon, there’s a more open challenge to the social structures that have created the chaos in the first place.
Opening salvo “Fake Money” swaggers like a pirate’s sea shanty, jeering and jabbing at the highly-placed power players who willfully disconnect from the human faces of their moneymaking ploys. Immediately, I’m thinking of the spoiled likes of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his man-child tantrums, but there’s a broader view of the Financial Districts of North America to explore. “Winning’s your religion, the altar where you preach/It’s easy setting fires/We’re all just currency.” This thread of protest winds through the album narrative, resurfacing on “What Are You Holding Onto?” in a pulsing pop-soaked call-out tune. Challenging the hypocrisy of those who tout God as their only judge and jury while disregarding morality at a whim, it’s a sly, bluesy wink-nudge born from eyes that see the man behind the proverbial curtain.
The album also explores personal triumphs and tribulations with an emotional rawness juxtaposed with fond reminiscence — think Born To Run meets Born In The U.S.A. Album highlight “Cynical Bastards” is a wry celebration of the people of Hamilton juxtaposed with the city’s sometimes questionable reputation. There’s an exuberant feel to the song, a challenge to rise up and embrace the darker elements and a thumbing of the nose to the surrounding suburbs. A portrait of life in an industrial world, it’s some of the best songwriting the band’s delivered to date. On the flip side of the sonic coin lies “Crawling Through The Window”, a fondly dark ode to difficult times shared between Kerman and friend Dan Hamilton. Through simple and stark imagery, the loss of love and friendship’s enduring power to help pick up the pieces shine through the night streets of the chorus. Similarly, “Leather Jacket” takes an iconic item of clothing and unfolds in quiet, unassuming observation of a woman caught in a spiral of bad situations — always coming back to a call for help and the comfort of worn sleeves.
For all of the heavy issues delved into between the lyrical lines, High Noon retains the upbeat playfulness Arkells are known for. Sweetly shy love song “11:11” is a new take on the classic “saw her across the room” tale, while “Dirty Blonde” cranks up the pop element for a sexually charged song about connecting on a deeper level. The gem of the joie de vivre numbers is “Hey Kids!”, a “Benny and the Jets” inspired ditty that congratulates the world for being special like snowflakes — just like everyone else. The paradox of human condition — that we are all unique, yet ultimately all human — is played out in a rousing call to unite, not divide.
High Noon may be a call to arms, but it’s wordy weapons the Arkells are truly espousing. Our stories, our experiences and opinions — these are what matter, and what we must amplify in the face of tough times and leaders who gamble with our lives. Cleverly political while remembering personal ties are what bind listeners to their favourite bands, High Noon is destined to be remembered as an iconic contribution to Canadian rock.
Highlights: “Cynical Bastards”; “Hey Kids!”‘ ; “Crawling Through The Window”; “Fake Money”
Final Grade: A