City & Colour June Singles - A Dual Perspective Review by Tim Lemon & Chris J. Smith
Dallas Green, the mastermind and name behind the alias “City and Colour”, has carved out a musical niche for himself anchored by melancholia. His soft yet powerful voice cuts smoothly with honest lyrics down to the heart of the thoughts and observations that trouble him most, exposing raw truths and hard questions as if through a beautifully carved wound. Beginning as a gentler divergent outlet following the disbanding of post-hardcare outfit “Alexisonfire” in 2012, Green has put multiple genres on a collision course with City and Colour. Although rooted in depressive acoustic folk which has seemed to give rise to artists like Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, Green has blended elements of country music and alternative rock with his indie songwriter vibe across five studio records and one live album. His latest singles, “Astronaut” and “Strangers”, were released separately during the month of June and mark either an intentional departure from the roots of “City and Colour” or the next chapter in the continued evolution, years and albums in the making, of the name, mind and man behind the music.
Image from dinealonerecords.com
TL - Although City and Colour’s most recent album, 2015’s If I Should Go Before You (IISGBY), steers hard into alternative rock and away from Green’s acoustic roots, “Astronaut” feels less like a continuation into territory charted by IISGBY and more like the beginning of a new journey. Going for a bigger sound than can be found on previous albums, the track features a heavy dose of synth bass to create a deeper and more wide-ranging space meant to emulate the abyss in which an astronaut would find themselves. Separate from the synth bass and drum programming, the song incorporates some staples of recent C&C albums but they are featured here in supporting roles, meant to fill in the edges of this ambitious audible expanse. Green’s vocals rise above the sparse arrangement in the first verse, with the ambient piano and synth subtly matching the ethereal nature of Green’s voice. The chorus is then sung with emblematic harmonies before an effects-driven pedal steel, heavier drums, and a back-in-the-mix acoustic guitar usher in the second verse, reminiscent of “Space and Time” off of 2013’s The Hurry and the Harm, but more produced. The restrained yet fuzz-distorted guitar solo also echoes the signature bend-heavy style present throughout C&C’s discography. The most striking difference between this track and Green’s previous work is the 2+ minute outro jam that utilizes harmonic guitars. Although more free-formed and seemingly improvised, the outro can even be loosely traced to the extended intro of “Woman”, the first song on IISGBY. Lyrically, Green explores the use of metaphors in comparing an examined life lived in isolation to that of an astronaut. The second verse turns the attention to the root of that loneliness and need for self-reflection, a long-since-ended relationship to which Green now feels he can return his road-weary wayfaring heart. The energy in the outro jam mirrors that triumphant return, alluding to being given the ability to see old things through new eyes via self-realization and time spent away.
CS - “Astronaut” is truly a voyage into the great wide open for Dallas Green and his band. Excitingly, this marks a prelude to a confirmed upcoming sixth studio album centered around Dallas’ lonely and dire songwriting, but accompanied in a splendidly relevant fashion by a new group of live musicians. He has truly tapped into some universally colorful and large sounds with this release. Everything seems heavier in this song, as though carrying the weight of not only the world but the entire universe on its shoulders. Dallas’s musical burdens have always been a point of connection for me, with much of his thematic content revolving around anxiety, insomnia, and a thirst for a greater purpose serving quite relatable on an emotional level. However, separate from my own identification with the messages behind the music, I feel the beauty of this song is that it is palpable and approachable by pretty much everyone under the sun. It also touches on a topic which I feel to be similar to “the overlook effect” astronauts discuss when they venture out into the stars. They depart under the impression that they are seeking what lies amongst the dangers beyond earth’s atmosphere, but discover something else entirely. Once dropped into the silent, serene darkness, like a pen into the blackest inkwell, the “overlook” of our spinning planet is what bears the most weight on these individuals overall. Just the sheer weight of that responsibility must be indescribable; the triumphant embark into a final frontier only few of us have the honor of gracing with our presence must be majestic. Drifting among the frightening yet mesmerizing cold, rolling plains of space is the setting of this song to me. The decadent layers mirror a journey through the atmosphere (with emphasis on the guitar solo) and encapsulate this magnificent mood painted with broad yet sophisticated strokes by an amazing veteran songwriter. I really believe he nailed it!
TL - The themes of isolation and coinciding redemption present in “Astronaut” certainly cannot be described as light-hearted, but the vibe is certainly upbeat with a thematic culmination in self-discovery. “Strangers” is decidedly darker, both lyrically and in terms of instrumentation. An ambience akin to driving in the rain at night is created by 80s-esque drums, light piano, and constant, striking guitar strums coupled with eerie, reverb-soaked backing vocals. Similar to “Astronaut”, there is also an instrumental break between verses in “Strangers” that is filled in with an effects-driven guitar riff that almost sounds like synth. Lyrically, Green delves into familiar territory, directing pointed questions at the general notion of a relationship. The beginning of the first verse concedes that the protagonist uses dreams to escape from a reality that is out of control while the rest of the song questions whether or not it is possible to regain control without exploring the root of the problem. Directed back at the idea of the relationship, the song’s protagonist seriously wants it to come back from the brink, but is faced with the harsh realization that they “...are strangers in this land, with so much left to discover.” The protagonist realizes, due to some unknown trauma - possibly infidelity - that he does not know himself, let alone his significant other. Further, due to the experiences that brought them to this point of reckoning, they wonder how they could ever return to the way they used to be while pretending the rest of the world does not exist. This helps me to envision that this song had a place on IISGBY, serving as an antithesis to the song “Runaway”. While “Runaway” tells the story of the protagonist and his lover optimistically embarking on their adventure together, “Strangers” tells of the repercussions- how it wasn’t what they thought it would be, how they became distant in the process, and how they now ask if they can ever truly find their way back. The song ends without answering these questions, raising them as a reminder to the possibility that we distract ourselves with attachment so as not to think about our loneliness. In that way, the themes in “Strangers” circle back to “Astronaut” which highlights the virtues of such isolation.
CS - To me, “Strangers” is a little less off the beaten path than “Astronaut”, returning to Green’s infamously charming nostalgia. The song really sinks into the crevices of the soul as if teetering in suspended animation, all while grinding forward in a patient crescendo as life tends to do. I will say, I was a bit more impressed with the emboldened, courageous partner to this single, but I have to admit from a marketing standpoint (in which I can barely call myself knowledgeable) this makes complete sense. It is what I believe to be a soft close, essentially, of an era. For the loyal fans who have been with Dallas Green from the start and rely on the folk-rock style in which he has proven himself throughout the years to be firmly planted (with the exception of debut Sometimes), it is easier to accept this transition into unknown sonic territory.
To sum it all up, we’d like to leave you with these defining words from Dallas himself. We feel they embody the underlying theme of his music, these singles being no exception. Through all the shifting changes under the “motion of the moon”, City & Colour will remain a nomadic spirit with a voice cutting sharply to the core of our solitary beings.
“I always think of the relationships in my life that have been fractured because I ended up doing what I do for a living,” says Dallas regarding the inspiration for the new song. “I’m always gone, wandering around and singing songs. However, it weighs on my family and friends. I’m asking for ‘one more year’. I left home at 21 to go play my guitar. It’s lonely, but it’s because I yearn to wander. I’m aware of how lucky I am.”