The music industry, like a Canadian winter, can be cold and unforgiving at times.
While the evolution of technology has given musicians a plethora of new tools with which to promote their work and establish a fanbase, the ease with which music changes hands has also made it difficult to sign a contract (let alone one that doesn’t screw the artist over). And while yes, it’s simpler to share your songs with the world, that same asset has resulted in a chaotic, flooded scene, to everyone’s potential detriment. To stand out, you must hit the road, play every festival you can, and shove your proverbial way to the front of the line for consideration.
Music, like any art, is a challenging labour of love, more than ever before. So, when do you decide that enough is enough?
For Jonathan Chandler, frontman of Ottawa folk-rock band Amos The Transparent, that struggle reached critical mass a few years ago. Despite critical acclaim for previous outings (including one of my personal favourite albums, 2012’s Goodnight, My Dear, I’m Falling Apart), Chandler reached a moment where he no longer wished to release music. In resulting discussions with his bandmates, Chandler and company came to realize that the introspection was rife with material for an album. Harnessing their appreciation of classic concept albums, the band launched a successful PledgeMusic campaign to explore the complexities of life as a working musician. The result: This Cold Escape, an 11-track narrative best explored as a cohesive whole.
Opener “Out The Window” sets the stage for our sonic journey, evoking both the youthful dreams of fame and the conflicted adult staring out into his world, making sense of his place in it. It also lays the foundation of the album’s overarching message of love — that it is what ultimately drives us, and determines what is worth our time and energy. Indeed, following track “Big City Lights” (an album highlight) juxtaposes personal desires and love’s way of complicating a once clear picture. “Will these words change the world long after I’ve gone and been?” Chandler ponders at the heart of the conflict, ultimately answering his own question with a more telling one: “And if you had nothing to fear, what would you sing about?”
Thematic cohesion aside, the concept album vibe is seldom intrusive. It’s cleverly put to work in the shuffling of radio stations to shift us into the country twang of the bittersweet “That’s The Life For Me”. Clever in its darkness, with self-referential lyrics — “Goodnight my dear, back to sleep”; “My, what big scary teeth you could show…” — it’s the listener’s turning point, a signal that the heart of the album’s conflict lies ahead.
This aching heart is the most rewarding and poignant stretch of the album for listeners. The stunning “Smoke & Mirrors” is a soundscape of near-operatic indie rock, delving into the toll that the struggle for fame can take on life offstage. Sacrifice and emotional ties left tattered and frayed play out in a somber rock waltz, swelling to a layered, orchestral rock crescendo that exemplifies the best of Amos The Transparent. In complement, “Death & His Certainty” offers an almost counter-argument: great love doesn’t die in adversity; it remains as the smoke clears. Indeed, it is the foundation upon which we can rebuild, no matter how dire the destruction in our wake.
And really, herein lies the truth of the most passionate creator: as long as everything we do or say is rooted in loving intention, how can it not be worthwhile? This is the moral of the story I take away. To deny our hearts is to retreat into a “cold escape”: free of burdens, but ultimately empty and without the warmth that gives us a sense of a life well lived. This point is driven home on the album’s title track (another highlight), with its warm instrumentation and harmonies.
If there’s any weakness to the album, it may be that its conclusion seems too overlapping in its parting words. For example, “Bury My Bones” and “Build A Home” seem more like lyrical halves of one song, rather than two unique entities; as a result, the former doesn’t feel like it holds its own place in the story. This is perhaps the danger of exploring concept albums that are meant to represent sonic pieces of a single whole, but it doesn’t diminish the daring decision to craft such a narrative. It’s a bold choice and on the whole, a calculated risk that pays off. It simply means that for me, as someone who crafts playlists and shuffles her music collection, some of the latter songs don’t readily find their own footing.
This Cold Escape is brutally honest yet woven in striking metaphor, evasive and still direct in the lens it offers listeners into the band’s world. At turns verging on sorrow and brimming in hope, it is an album that explores humanity and a struggle we all take on in our own ways. How we rise above — how we choose to thrive, not survive — is what defines us.
Highlights: “This Cold Escape”; “Smoke & Mirrors”; “Big City Lights”; “Build A Home”
Final Grade: A
Learn more about Amos The Transparent and get your own copy of the album at their official site.