"Whoever said you can't be saved by a song?" Sam Roberts asks on "Uprising Down Under," an elegiac track from his band's new album, Chemical City "Whoever said that was stringing you along."
It's a bold assertion, but it's not the first time Roberts has put himself on the line, worn his heart on his sleeve and tackled apathy head on. His band's debut album, We Were Born in a Flame, was an uncompromising collection of songs about love, faith, compassion, struggle and transcendence, on which Roberts made his now-famous declaration that he'd die for rock 'n' roll. This was no empty boast. On consecutive hit singles, including "Brother Down," "Don't Walk Away Eileen" and "Where Have All the Good People Gone?," the Montreal musician proved his unwavering dedication to passionate power-pop, mystical folk and wildly uninhibited psychedelic rock. Even critics with high-powered bullshit detectors proclaimed him the real deal.
With Chemical City, Roberts and his band have delivered a follow-up more visceral, less polished and yet, paradoxically, more ambitious than their best-selling, Juno-winning debut. "I didn't write a lot going into it," explains Roberts. "With the last record, it felt like I had every lick and note figured out beforehand. With this one, I just wanted to leave it open to our imagination and for there to be a sense of immediacy and urgency to the whole record." To get his creative juices flowing, Roberts traveled to Holland and parts of Africa, including Mauritius and his parents' native South Africa. While holidaying in Australia, he found a renovated old Presbyterian church in rural New South Wales, near Byron Bay, and decided it was the perfect place-secluded and remote-to record the new album.
Joining him in Oz were band mates Dave Nugent (lead guitar), Eric Fares (keyboards), James Hall (bass) and Billy Anthopoulos (drums). Co-producer Mark Howard (Lucinda Williams, The Tragically Hip) arrived with all the necessary recording equipment. And the camaraderie, reminiscent of The Band holed up in Big Pink in the late 1960s, brought an unmistakable warmth to the album. Recalls Roberts: "We lived and ate our meals together in the church, spent our mornings at the beach and came back in the afternoon to get down to work. It was all pretty idyllic." The recording was later completed in Montreal, with Roberts' high-school buddy turned producer-engineer Joseph Donovan (The Dears, The High Dials) taking over the controls and drummer Josh Trager joining the crew. But a large part of the album, especially its rich organ sound, was clearly inspired by the Australian church setting, The Band (and its keyboard wizard Garth Hudson) or both.
Much of Chemical City exudes a spirited energy. The mellifluous "Uprising Down Under," featuring a guest appearance from Roberts' buddy and fellow Canadian indie star Matt Mays, and "The Resistance," with its joyous refrain "we danced while the city slept," are downright euphoric. Other songs, including the acoustic rocker "Bridge to Nowhere" and the psych-pop jam "Mystified, Heavy," tackle bleaker, more existential matters. The contrast was deliberate. "With this album I really wanted to explore the darkest depths and the highest heights of experience," explains Roberts. "The tension between those two extremes is what attracts me to rock 'n' roll and gives a lot of my favorite music its real power."
Meanwhile, several songs wrap what Roberts calls "day-to-day issues" in metaphorically rich packaging. The hypnotically trippy "Mind Flood" likens the creative process to a flowing stream whose levels reflect the artistic muse. "Grey skies, the waters rise," sings Roberts, "blue skies, the river dries." And the driving heartland rocker "An American Draft Dodger in Thunder Bay" paints a sympathetic portrait of a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, but it could just as easily apply to the Iraq War. "That's what spurred the song along," says Roberts. "There's a whole new influx here of people from the States who just don't like the way their country is being run."
But Chemical City's most ambitious aspect is its fantasy theme. From the cover illustration by Ken Dewar to songs like "The Gate," the album's anthemic first single, an image of a futuristic world populated by saints and sinners pervades. "The Gate" serves as a cautionary tale about a "faded empire" where its citizens are overshadowed by a malevolent force. "The Bootleg Saint," a hook-laden rocker reminiscent of We Were Born in a Flame's "Hard Road," is full of colorful characters who likely inhabit the same city-state. Roberts admits that some of his favorite novels, including Philip K. Dick's Dr. Bloodmoney and John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up, served as inspiration for these songs. "A lot of sci-fi is just a fragmented representation of our own world," says the McGill University English graduate. "It's not really as fantastical as it seems."
Real or surreal, quest or crusade, Chemical City brings this band of relentless road warriors back to fight the good fight against cynicism and complacency. Resistance is futile, salvation assured. Whoever said you can't be saved by a song clearly wasn't familiar with the music of Sam Roberts.