Murray A. Lightburn Excavates the Past on 'Once Upon a Time in Montreal'

BY Bruno CoulombePublished Mar 28, 2023

The music of the Dears is inextricably linked with Montreal, most subliminally in its ambitious arrangements, echoing Quebecers' love for prog-rock. For his third solo album, the moving Once Upon a Time in Montreal, the band's frontman Murray A. Lightburn shifts from his band's bombastic sound and pulls more explicitly from his hometown to offer a heartfelt homage to his late father, drawing from the city's complex musical history. 

Born in the suburbs of Montreal, Lightburn can be considered one of the founding fathers of the local music scene; someone who was raised there, who went to Steve's Music to buy instruments as a teenager rather than someone who was drawn to the city once it became the focus of the international press in 2005. His father, William Lightburn, was an immigrant who moved to Montreal from Belize via New York in the 1960s, playing saxophone in jazz combos before becoming a Pentecostal minister. He died in April 2020 after suffering from Alzheimer's, which left his son in search of answers as to who he was exactly.

As press materials explain, Lightburn realized that his father remained "a complete stranger" to him despite growing up in the same house, which meant he had to reconstruct his portrait through conversations with his mother. The result is what Lightburn calls the "audio version of a biopic." Opener "Dumpster Gold" tells the story of a relationship fuelled by a lack of communication ("It would have been so nice exchanging words just once or twice,") set in the context of a family rummaging through the artifacts of a loved one, most of it ending up in the dump. As for "In the Kingdom of Heaven," it details William Lightburn's religious faith, which led him to abandon music. But no track matches the intensity of closer "Girl You've Got to Let Me Go," a delicate but shattering piano ballad in which a dying narrator says farewell to his lover.

What stands out about Lightburn's solo career as opposed to his work with the Dears is how he's been able to craft a different persona for himself through each record. On 2013's MASS:LIGHT, he drew heavily from electronic music while sticking closer to the Dears' approach in terms of intensity and complex song structures. In that sense, 2019's Hear Me Out marked a radical shift in style with its crooning vocals and soul-inflected songs reminiscent of Marvin Gaye and the '60s Motown sound.

Although Once Upon a Time in Montreal feels closer to Hear Me Out because of its personal tone, its music builds from different sources, especially jazz and the folk-pop sound of the late '60s, early '70s. The influence of Nick Drake and Van Morrison is palpable, but one can also be reminded of the Quebec chanson tradition of the same era, when figures like Jean-Pierre Ferland and Claude Léveillée imbued their songs with swelling string arrangements. Featuring a beautiful sax solo by Frank Lozano, the jazzy title track harks back to another past musical tradition, echoing a time when Montreal was known as North America's "Sin City." There's even a prog-rock feel to "In the Kingdom of Heaven," which almost sounds like a Pink Floyd ballad.

Backed by the sober yet effective production of Howard Bilerman (Leif Vollebekk, the Weather Station, Basia Bulat), Lightburn has penned a love letter both to his father and his city. Despite the topic, this is not a mournful record, as it's filled with love and humour (the way Lightburn pronounces "Montreal" with a French accent in the title track, or how he describes the city's "freezing nights.") But most of all, by consciously trying to craft an album that his father would like, the Dears frontman has also challenged himself as a songwriter, shedding the bombast of his band to pursue a different path. While it's true that Once Upon a Time in Montreal sounds like nothing Lightburn has done before, his work has probably never rang so true.

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