When I first met Jeremy Greenspan in 1995, he was the personification of a pop cultural crisis. Shaped by Pop right down to the core of his being, steeped in Pop history, it seemed that there was only one thing he should be doing: making Pop records. But what point was there continuing to make Pop music if everything had already been done?
Then, suddenly, Pop jolted itself out of nostalgic rewind, and found Now again. In the US, Timbaland's hiccuping hip-hop infected the mainstream with a cartoon cubism while, in the UK, Speed Garage had mutated into a bizarrely utopian strain of Pop - characterized by chirruping pitched-up vocals and deep digital bass – called 2-step.
All of this filtered into the early recordings Jeremy made back in Canada (with then-partner Johnny Dark) as Junior Boys. These songs had the surprise of the inevitable. Who else would have thought of blending rhythmic psychedelia and glacial Foxxoid electronics with a late-night voice weakened by vulnerability and longing? No-one: but the combination made an uncanny kind of sense. The late Nick Kilroy thought so, and he released Junior Boys' debut album, Last Exit, on his own label, KIN. By now, Johnny Dark had left (his brilliant 'nu- step' EP is about to be released by KIN), and Jeremy was assisted by his long-time friend, producer Matt Didemus.
The obvious difference between So This is Goodbye and its predecessor is the absence of the tricksy stop-start stutter beats on the new record. If Junior Boys' inventiveness is no longer concentrated on beats, that is a reflection as much of a decline of the surrounding Pop context as it a sign of their newfound taste for rhythmic classicism. In the period since the first LP, both hip hop and British garage have taken a turn for the brutalist and Pop has consequently been deprived of any modernizing force. Timbaland's beat surrealism became water-treading repetition years ago, displaced by the ultra-realist thuggish plod of corporate hip hop and the ugly carnality of Crunk; 2-Step's 'feminine pressure' has long since been crushed by the testosterone-saturated bluntness of Grime. That skunk- fugged heaviness remains the antipodes of the Junior Boys' cyberian, etherealized, plaintive physicality; listening to the Junior Boys after hearing Grime or dubstep is like walking out of a locker room thick with dope smoke out onto a Caspar David Friedrich mountain: a lung-cleansing experience.
It is significant that those other ultra-heterosexual post-Garage musics should have bred out the influence of House whereas Junior Boys return to it so emphatically. House references are everywhere on So This is Goodbye: the title track is gorgeously, oneirically poised on a honeyed Mr. Fingers' plateau, and it is not only the arpeggiated synth which drives many of the tracks that is reminiscent of Jamie Principle. Yet, the album does not sound either like House or like most previous attempts to synthesize Pop with House. So This is Goodbye is like House if it had started in the wilds of Canada rather the clubs of Chicago.
The removal of rhythmic tricksiness perhaps also indicates something of the scale of Junior Boys' Pop ambitions, which are best seen as the pioneering of a New MOR rather than another attempt at New Pop. Junior Boys' songs have always had more in common with a certain type of contemporary composer - Hall and Oates, Prefab Sprout, The Blue Nile, Lindsay Buckingham. Modernist MOR is the opposite of the discredited strategy of entryism: it doesn't 'conform to deform.' Rather, it locates the alien right in the heart of the familiar. The problem with current Pop is not the predominance of MOR, but the fact that MOR has been corrupted by the wheedling whine of Indie authenticity. In any just world, Junior Boys, not the drippy moroseness of James Blunt nor the earthy earnestness of KT Tunstall, would be the globally dominant MOR brand in 2006.
Ultimately, though, So This is Goodbye sounds more middle of the tundra than middle of the road. It's as if Junior Boys' journey into North America Endless has continued beyond the late-night freeways of Last Exit. It's like the first LP's city lights and Edward Hopper coffee bars have receded and we're taken out, beyond even the small towns, into the depopulated wildernesses of Canada's Northern Territories. Or rather, it's as if those wildernesses have crept into the very marrow of the record. In The Idea of North, Glenn Gould suggests that the North's icy desolation has a special pull on the Canadian imagination. You hear this on So This is Goodbye not in any positive content so much as in the music's gaps and absences; it's those gaps and absences that make the songs what they are.
Those crevices and grottoes seem to multiply as the album progresses. The second half of the album (what I hear as the 'second side'; one of the most gratifying things about So This is Goodbye is that it is structured like a classic Pop album, not an extras-clogged CD) diffuses forward motion into trails of electro-cumulae. The title track sets stately synths against the anti-climactic urgency of Acid House's Forever Now: the effect like running up a down escalator, frozen in an aching moment of transition. "Like A Child" and "Caught In A Wave" immerse the agitated drive of the LP's signature arpeggiated synth in a vapour trail of opiated atmospherics.
The reading of Sinatra's 'When No One Cares' is the knot which holds together all of So This is Goodbye, a clue to its modernist MOR intentions (lines from the song - 'count souvenirs', 'like a child' - provide the titles for other tracks, almost as if the song is a puzzle the whole album is trying to solve). So This is Goodbye is like a globalized update of late Sinatra, its images of 'hotel lobbies,' 'shopping malls we'll never see again' and 'homes for sale' sketching a world in a state of permanent impermanence. The songs are overwhelmingly preoccupied with leave-taking and change, fixated on doing things for the first or the last time. 'So This is Goodbye' is not the title track for nothing.
So This is Goodbye's songs bear much the same relation to high-energy as the late Sinatra's bore to big band jazz: what was once a communal, dance-oriented music has been hollowed out into a cavernous, contemplative space for the most solitary of musings. On Junior Boys' version of "When No One Cares," beats are abandoned altogether, the track's 'endless night' lit only by the dying-star flares and stalactite-by-flashlight pulse of reverbed electronics.
Junior Boys have transformed the song from the lonely-crowd melancholy of the original - Frank at the bar staring into his whisky sour, happy couples partying obliviously behind him - into a lament whispered in the wilderness, icy-breathed into the black mirror indifference of a Great Lake at midnight. It is as cosmically desolated as the Young Gods' version of "September Song," as arctic- white as Miles Davis' Aura. "When No One Cares" is one of my favourite Sinatra songs and I must have first heard it twenty years ago, but with the Junior Boys version - which makes the catatonic stasis of the original's grief seem positively busy - it is as if I am hearing the words for the first time.
So This Is Goodbye is a very travel sick record. It expresses what we might call nomadalgia. Nomadalgia, the sickness of travel, would be a complement to, not the opposite of, the sickness for home, nostalgia. The album invokes a globalized world in which we are all tourists - at home everywhere and nowhere, constantly connected but always alone.