Originally, I wasn’t going to review Dan Mangan’s stellar new LP, Oh Fortune. Not because the record wasn’t worthy — it’s a fantastic, cohesive, full band affair — or because I didn’t think Mangan pushed his limits or extended his reach. Even the most cursory listen reveals a change in sound and surprising new textures, but more importantly Dan reversed the microscope and instead of simply singing acoustic driven songs focused on his life and his surroundings, his gaze ventures outward to more pressing, more universal subject matter.
No, talent wasn’t the deciding factor. Simply put, after covering Dan for the last few years and watching proudly as his rocket ship took flight over the last 18-months, there wasn’t anything this blog could do except stand back in awe as he continued to climb. Nice, Nice, Very Nice turned Mangan from a relative unknown into a ubiquitous entity. Almost instantly, he was a voice of his city, an ambassador for Canadian music and a nomad who traveled to all ends of the globe playing festivals.
Dan will undoubtedly be featured in every weekly, and countless scribes will pen reviews that many agree with and many do not. Considering his current place, I think praise is almost an inevitability; his songs ring out on all our nations radio stations and his shows sell out in every city and town, but that’s not why Oh, Fortune deserves your time. The reason Dan deserves the press is how he released a career defining record, and came back with something much bolder and self-assured than just another song writer record. It’s Dan’s first time writing collaboratively with a set lineup. His band, The Crackling, has been locked and loaded for several tours now and the new record is a collection of songs that explore countless new textures and introduce new wrinkles and lots of noise in place of acoustic hooks and supporting instrumentation.
That’s probably why IHM’s review of Oh, Fortune is so frustrating. I realize it’s petty to call out another “critic” for his opinion (no matter how lazy it is) and you can’t empirically argue taste, but by stating that “unsurprisingly, that sound isn’t too far from Nice, Nice, Very Nice” or dismissing the change in sound by offhandedly offering that Mangan’s arrangements are “not a groundbreaking formula” is disappointing. If this was a review from a random site, it wouldn’t matter much, but over the years Matthew has built a blog people pay attention to and turn to for opinion about the Canadian scene, so to simply dismiss Oh, Fortune — one of the biggest Canadian releases of the year — as something that just sounds Mangan-y is reckless, especially for a listen that is only improved by embracing the subtleties the band delivered.
Nice, Nice, Very Nice was littered with existing and proven talent; the supporting players were a who’s who of the Canadian scene, but they stood behind Mangan and his trusty acoustic and happily played second fiddle to his warm voice and observational anecdotes. This record is Dan and his band, but ignoring their contribution is unfair. Several songs would seem hollow without percussion, stand-up bass and the string arrangements he developed playing special theatre shows over the last two years.
You might hear Dan’s rumbling voice, deem it as the center point of the songs and assume this course is flavored from the same stock as other offerings, but Mangan refuses to leverage for past successes. He and the band avoid easy hooks. They rely on noise and exciting additions — case in point, the “catchy folk-rock song” “Post-War Blues” is defined not by Mangan’s voice, but by the fantastic guitar work of Gord Grdina and thumping percussion of Kenton Loewen — and certainly aren’t hoping for arm in arm, crowd swaying singalongs. Even when things slow down, like they do on “Daffodil”, an electro/static current starts the affair and echoes throughout the two-minute gem, and strings help finish his thoughts. The swirling textures on “Leaves, Trees, Forest” help add depth to the song, and certainly show a progression and riskier side to Mangan’s arrangements and even if it’s not the lens that he sees through, he even pulls off the delicate country tinged closer.
Even if you only wanted to talk about the lyricism on Oh, Fortune, you’d have to point out that Mangan’s world view, while still warm and open in delivery, is darker. These aren’t tales of missing home (and considering that Mangan has has slept in his own bed roughly 15 times this year, that’s impressive), and calling his lover until he runs out of quarters. Mangan tackles issues like post-war depression and how our government forgets about our troops, and highlights the crumbling farm industry. He uses an ode to Stand By Me to hint to talk about the over development of our lands. He takes other people’s stories and tells them with respect, letting their actions help define his current state.
After reading Matthew’s review, the only point we agree on is that Oh, Fortune “refuses to be slotted neatly into a little box.” Sadly, his review tries to do just that.