Rumpus Sound Takes: Phases and Stages

By

Plants and Animals
The End of That (Secret City)

Rock bands age reluctantly, if at all.

But the years of practicing, playing, touring, partying and walking the escapist’s path add up, dragging along a raft of doubts that eventually become unavoidable.

For bands, facing down questions of maturity, identity and adulthood is a tricky matter. Such self-reflection, after all, is the subject of the much-derided Dad Rock.

So when Montreal’s Plants and Animals dive right into existential crisis mode on The End of That, it makes for a refreshingly bold and stark record about personal disappointments, yearning and the salvation of camaraderie.

The band—Warren C. Spicer, Nic Basque and Matthew Woodley—finds itself “somewhere between the crisis and a pretty good time,” as Spicer sings on “Crisis,” the first of two six-minute songs that form the musical and thematic centerpiece of the album.

“Well holy matrimony! / Everyone is getting married or breaking up / And the stroller situation on the sidewalk is way out of control,” sings Spicer, describing the difficulty of  relating to peers who have embarked on more traditional paths. As Spicer traces the familiar divide between settled-down and still-rolling stones, he finds that both paths lead to exhaustion. He sings “I’m getting tired of the free fall” in a verse that namechecks “Heartbreak Hotel” to suggest both the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and heartbreak itself. But after Spicer sings about being “driven to sin,” the song shifts from negotiating “a crisis and a pretty good time” to the struggle between sin and salvation, or at least “a chance at salvation.” In that regard, the song’s insight relates to self-reliance and the power of optimism. As the song goes crashing headlong into its jammy outro, what’s left ringing is Spicer’s last line: “For the broken-hearted believers there’s something more.”

After “Crisis” comes “2010,” the sort of New Year-inspired personal inventory that bids good riddance while also looking forward with wildly unwarranted optimism. “Can’t understand yourself / you need someone else,” sings Spicer. It’s a sentiment that begins to strip away the delusions of that optimism while serving as an admission that avoiding the weight of adult commitments has its own drawbacks.

Bridging those two songs is the notion that a person’s day-to-day outlook can swing around drastically, often depending on what others are doing. When self-reflection is calibrated to others, perceived failures are magnified. At the same time, isolated reflection can lead to self-delusion.  Optimism exists in both songs, but each song’s  nuances suggest optimism is best applied in realistic doses, and with balanced consideration of oneself and others.

At times on the album, though, the lyrics are so plain-spoken and direct they come across as mundane. “Do you fear loneliness? / Do you fear getting left behind? / All your friends are getting married and having a time,” Spicer sings on “No Idea.” It’s a valid and sincere observation, but the band is missing a chance to treat those themes in a more complex way.

While some of the lyrics point to a depressing or deeply emotional (if somewhat cliche) record, the band gives the songs a musical urgency and tight focus, running from spiraling guitar riffs to plaintive piano. An instrumental-only band at its inception, Plants and Animals have a vintage rock sound that recalls The Band, The Grateful Dead and Crazy Horse, alternately rootsy and psychedelic, equally comfortable in frantic jams and simple folk. It’s the same type of alternate-history classic rock played by contemporaries like Blitzen Trapper, Dr. Dog and The War on Drugs, slicing and shuffling big-name influences into a sound that’s familiar and even recognizable, yet impossible to pin down.

Adding to the vintage feel of The End of That is the album’s visual presentation. The cover art is a plain, sepia-toned background with the title in big, ornate script, a la The Last Waltz. The video for “The End of That” is straight out of the 1970s—bright and ugly colors, big hair and sideburns, and heavy schmaltz borrowed from The Englebert Humperdinck Show.

Bringing so much throwback style to the project seems to suggest a brighter conclusion to the album’s existential crisis than the songs themselves can offer. If all those greats of rock past were able to sail through their 20s, 30s, 40s and even 50s without despairing (or by converting despair into music), and found ways to adapt their creative energy to the shifting demands of adult life, then there’s already a road map for growing old the rock ’n’ roll way.

As the album progresses, it’s already on the way to that conclusion. Album closer “Runaways” finds Spicer singing “I’d never dreamed I’d make it this far.” It’s a lyric that works as a summation of both the album itself and a sort of final conclusion to the album’s themes and commentary. The End of That presents a band with plenty to show for living the life it’s chosen. “Runaways” captures an intimate moment, not only of gratitude and self-assurance, but also of clear-headed purpose at the conclusion of so much reflection.


Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express and Souciant Magazine. He plays rhythm guitar in the Good Little Thieves. More from this author →