Handsome Furs - Plague Park

“We hate this place here / its our home” (Sing! Captain!)

How do you come to grips with the place in which you live? How does the environment set up your outlook, and vice versa? What happens when you find yourself, depressed, in a cold, bleak city? Handsome Furs, the duo of Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade co-vocalist) and his fiancée, Alexei Perry, answer these questions on Plague Park, their first album.

The band found their sound when the couple stumbled upon an archaic drum machine, and their stated point was to be as repetitive and minimal (as pop will let you be) from then on. Lyrically, the album revolves around the place of its title – a city square in Helsinki, Ruttopuisto, that was originally a burial ground for victims of the plague in the late seventeenth century. Helsinki expanded of course, growing around the cemetery – Now, says Perry, “it’s just this sunny little anomaly where people – families and teenagers – in the summer time go there and drunk and have barbeques and good times on top of all these buried victims”. That contrast between fun on the surface (and Handsome Furs make it seem like that might be the only place it can ever exist) and decay below speaks volumes of the album’s theme.

Handsome Furs insist that this idea of urban decomposition, and its related bodily/moral decay, wasn’t initially planned. Says Boeckner: “we didn’t really start out with this stuff, but the songs all seemed to have a lyrical theme of urban decay or rural stagnation even, and the balance between those two things. And both are kind of hard on the mind, like if you’re going to live in a place that is really isolated and small, it can totally drive you crazy or it can be a release. And then just living in the city – the amount of options for things to do are kind of balanced out by the fact that you’re dealing with like, municipal corruption, poverty, crazy people.”

A kind of cold picture emerges from this, something which the sparse instrumentation perfectly matches. And in terms of its concept, Plague Park is amazingly integrated, its hard to think of a better album where music, lyrics and mood are articulated so cohesively. The album centres itself around repetition, sparseness and alienation – not only lyrically but in the composition of scrappy, shot-through drum machines, buzzing synth effects and recurring parts. This sounds like the bleak streets of the hostile city, or the equally empty and menacing landscapes of the countryside.

Lyrically, however, is where Plague Park shines most. Boeckner has already penned some of Wolf Parade’s best songs, but here, when foiled with Perry, a short fiction writer, both spurred by such a specific ambient and idea, the lines that emerge are amazing. The lines are both straightforwardly bare and symbolically rich, twisting around their bleak themes with passion and worldweariness.

Whilst every track on this album is worthy of description, I’ll stick to Handsome Furs Hate This City. Fuzzy, stumbling keys open up the song, and then Boeckner commences his eulogy for the city and those within it, a layer of hiss persisting underneath:

“Woke up with blankets and buildings with jaws
Stuck to the sheets clammy with noon”
We wished for night-time, the darkening screen
Open the heart, it’s just a machine
Oh, it was home”

Perry then introduces a bruised programmed beat, evoking grey buildings and twisted metal, its incessant repetition mapping out the homogenous urban landscape. Acoustic guitar remains hollow; the melodic elements buried by percussion’s stranglehold. Boeckner then reaches the refrain, which in any other song simply wouldn’t sell:

"Oh, life is long and hollow"

Here it’s sung as if by a weathered man, reflecting on the parenthetical nature of existence, “all the blank little minutes of life” (Cannot Get Started). Everything comes crashing about soonafter this and Boeckner sums up the utter fucking meaninglessness of choice: “Baby we can get you anything you want / Anytime you want / But you won’t know what it’s for”.

I suppose the only trouble with a concept like this one is how much thinness can you take? Sure, Boeckner’s rich, amazing vocals and amazing riffing lift the mood on occasion, but the repetition and spareness of it all sink you towards the end, and even though only nine songs long, Plague Park leaves you feeling hollow and worn. Then again, weren’t you already like that?

Handsome Furs - Sing! Captain!

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