By Chris Moore:
RATING: 3.5 / 5 stars
According to Wikipedia, A Singer Must Die falls under the “orchestrated pop” genre. If that is accurate, then this is my first orchestrated pop purchase.
And it’s a good one.
Along with the Art of Time Ensemble, Steven Page arranged and performed ten covers — if you include the Barenaked Ladies’ “Running Out of Ink” — that run the emotional gamut and mark a departure from the instrumental sound we’ve come to associate with Steven Page, both as a member of BnL and as the main force behind the Vanity Project. Here and there throughout his recorded career, there have been strings or horns, but this is the first major release on which he is backed almost entirely by the orchestration of an ensemble.
And yet, the overall tones, themes, and vocal textures are still very much the Steven Page we’ve come to know, particularly in the music he has written and performed this decade. Page always seemed to be the more serious one in his often comedic BnL partnership with Ed Robertson — the “It’s All Been Done” to Robertson’s “One Week,” if you will. Throughout this decade, though, Page’s preferences have swung even more to the extreme, considering the beautiful, heartbreaking ballads of Maroon (2000), the topical tracks like “Celebrity” and “War on Drugs” on Everything to Everyone (2003), and the sober “Bad Day” on the otherwise upbeat Snacktime! (2008).
In a sense, the conception of this project could be traced as far back as the 2007 Barenaked Ladies Are Men track “Running Out of Ink,” on which Page voiced the narrator’s social and personal downward spiral made all the more distressing by a loss of creative energy, the bag of of all he’s ever written being tossed off a bridge, bleeding ink, and sinking out of sight by the close of the song.
Now that Page has struck out on his own, the pressures described in that song must be an even more real force for him. As a solo artist, he will either sink or swim as a result of his efforts alone, and that must be a frightening, if thrilling, experience after two decades in a five-piece band.
A Singer Must Die carries all the maturity and experience you would expect from an artist who has spent more time in the headlines than on record the past few years. The drug-related arrest. The breakup.
At last, Page is back on the top of his game, having released a record that relaxes and frets, breathes and pants for breath, escapes and runs head on into pain and sorrow — an excellent record.
The piano and string-heavy “Lion’s Teeth” kicks off the album on a suspenseful note, tension building with every second that passes. Page builds up to a near-scream as he sings, “And my arms get sore, and my palms start to sweat; and the tears roll down my face ’til my cheeks are hot and red and soaking wet…”
He goes on to sing, “There’s no good way to end this — anyone can see there’s just great big you and little old me.”
What a way to kick off his first individual effort following the break with BnL!
The greatest strength of A Singer Must Die is the arrangement of tracks. The opener is followed by the initially calm and beautiful opening verses of Elvis Costello’s “I Want You.” Fiona Apple set the bar high for cover versions of this track, and Page was up to the task, even if the middle to end of the song suffers from some self-indulgent orchestration.
Next comes a track that surprised me — I never knew I could enjoy a Rufus Wainright song. Sounding like it came from an early twentieth century crooner’s repertoire, “Foolish Love” further advances the feeling expressed on “I Want You,” if from a different angle.
Thanks to the Art of Time Ensemble, “Running Out of Ink” is even more manic and frantic here than the original Barenaked Ladies version was, and this is saying something. For me, this is the thematic centerpiece of the album, a song originally co-written by Page himself. Throughout rock music history, the greatest songwriters have turned to covers when they were themselves “running out of ink.”
Thankfully, Page is not, as he has set the release date for his first solo album proper for later this year.
“A Singer Must Die” and “Taxi Ride” are excellent companion pieces, the former expressing the dangers of self-expression with fitting sarcasm and the latter expressing a bittersweet departure that includes near-hallucinations and the sad, pleading, distressed vocals that few can pull off so convincingly and expressively as Page can.
If “Taxi Ride” is the low point, emotionally speaking, of this record, then “Tonight We Fly” is just the pick-me-up that it needs. This is a case of perfect lyrics, perfect performance, and perfect timing.
“Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure” is easily the most heartrending track on A Singer Must Die, and is an exemplary case of Page’s ability to translate a fairly straightforward indie rock track by the Weakerthans into an emotive, beautiful masterpiece. If there is one track that makes me think of the sad (if not so shocking) news of Page’s departure from BnL last year, this is it.
“For We Are the King of the Buidoir” is, unsurprisingly, a wonderfully quirky song originally written and performed by the Magnetic Fields. Again, timing is everything as Page’s spot-on rendition of this little gem is right where it needed to be, as a transition between the solemnity of “Virtute” and the frenzied madness of “Paranoid Android,” in and of itself a perfectly placed cover of the Radiohead classic. After all, what better way to conclude a post-breakup solo album than with lines like “ambition makes you look pretty ugly, kicking and squealing” and “when I am king, you will be first against the wall with your opinion which is of no consequence at all”?
I will be the first in line for Steven Page’s first solo album of original material when it arrives later this year, but for now, A Singer Must Die has served to at least whet my appetite for new material from a man who is arguably one of the most talented singer/songwriters of the past two decades, alongside others like Ben Folds, Elliott Smith, Jakob Dylan, Eddie Vedder, and Jeff Tweedy who have shaped the sound of modern rock music.
If A Singer Must Die is a necessary transition effort before an entirely original release, then it is a promising one. The choices here are excellent — both obscure and ambitious — and the performances are first rate.
In the end, though, a singer’s death may be compelling, but his imminent rebirth is all the more exciting…