Patrick Watson Turns a New Page on 'Better in the Shade'
Published Apr 20, 2022Literature has often been a source of inspiration for music: think of David Bowie's loose take on George Orwell's 1984 (Diamond Dogs) or Neutral Milk Hotel digging into The Diary of Anne Frank (In the Aeroplane over the Sea). On his seventh album, Patrick Watson takes cues from the words of Virginia Woolf and Denis Johnson to produce a succinct but heartfelt collection of songs that play like short stories.
More than 15 years after releasing his breakthrough record Close to Paradise (2006), Watson remains an important figure in the Montreal indie scene. Like others, he has enjoyed a significant amount of international success, but it's his ability to embody the culture of the city that has made him a longtime local favourite, especially for how he has bridged the Anglo and Franco scenes. His first tour with Karkwa (as Karkwatson) in 2008 was particularly influential in its efforts to bring the two communities together, since it involved the fusing of both their repertoires.
By far his shortest LP to date at 22 minutes, Better in the Shade arrives three years after the critically-acclaimed Wave, an intense and emotional record on which Watson tried to cope with the death of his mother and a recent breakup. The result was his most personal album to date, and his most accomplished work as a lyricist. Musically, the album also marked a synthesis between the orchestral folk of his early days and the more electronic sounds of Love Songs for Robots (2015).
Better in the Shade continues both trends. As the literary references attest, Watson put a lot of care in crafting the lyrics for this new album. But while the songs on Wave sought to tell stories, here the poetry takes the form of vignettes, evoking the random thoughts often pacing through our heads. On the beautiful "Height of the Feeling," sung with Ariel Engle of La Force, the lyrics speak of solitude and the fear of facing our emotions when words feel useless: "Is there a loneliness leaking / Inside of all of your thinking? / As your breath hit the ceiling / The words lose all of their meaning."
Overall, there is less emphasis here on the types of orchestral textures that were so fundamental to Wave, which leaves more room for electronics. In particular, the use of modular synths provides a warmer touch than the ones that gave Love Songs for Robots an almost sci-fi feel. Tracks like "Little Moments" and "Stay" are great additions to Watson's catalog, reaching for a more ethereal, quasi-minimalist quality with their pulsating rhythms and floating vocals.
If Wave was a deeply intimate record in its themes (loss, grief, resilience), Better in the Shade feels more intimate musically. With the exception of the title track, which echoes Watson's familiar style with swelling strings around him, the music sounds more restrained on this new album. This stems in part from the sharper focus on electronics, but also from the subtle and jazz-tinged drumming of Andrew Barr of the Barr Brothers, which works perfectly on a delicate number like "Blue."
Despite all of its qualities, Better in the Shade isn't quite satisfying. It's not just a question of length; a 1,000-page novel isn't necessarily better than a short story. But since he's expanding the parameters of his musical playground, it would have been great to see him fully explore the possibilities of that new sound. Of the seven tracks, two act more like interludes (the melody of "Ode to Vivian" briefly echoes "Mr. Tom," from Close to Paradise) and they don't add a lot to the collection in the end. Watson's press materials explicitly bill Better in the Shade as a "full-length," but it's closer to an EP in scope.
Still, this seventh LP from Patrick Watson provides a welcomed counterpoint to the rest of his discography. Although it lacks any true standout tracks, it makes up for it with Watson's most adventurous production to date and a clear desire to walk on new paths, which bodes well for any future releases. (Secret City)