CD review : The Paperbacks, “Lit From Within”

One hundred and twenty-six minutes is an unusual length for an album. Yet, that’s the exact duration of Lit From Within, the new album from Winnipeg’s the Paperbacks. It’s an extraordinarily ambitious length, like the musical equivalent of a David Foster Wallace novel.

Unleashed a decade into the 21st century — a time when the album is being hunted to extinction by digital predators — the Paperbacks’ (singer/guitarist Doug McLean, bassist Jaret McNabb, guitarist Kevin Andrechuk, drummer Corey Biluk and keyboardist Kevin McLean) newest is a towering double album, an opus with a length that recalls the triple L.P.-era of Yes’ Tales From the Topographic Ocean.

So, since Lit From Within is not a progressive rock piece or post-modern novel, the question arises: “Is it too much?”

Well, to begin with, a band which released only two full length albums in their decade-long existence – building up a backlog large enough to create a work longer than Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, but shorter than Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” – could hardly be accused of being overly-prolific or self-indulgent.

Furthermore, Lit from Within needs time to speak its piece. Lyricist McLean has — as Sylvia Plath implored poets to do — become an expert packer of suitcases. The lyrics, laid out in a six-page, tiny-type booklet, are packed to bursting with words, with cutting references to Axl Rose’s whistling, anarcho-punk politics, deferred adolescence and the facelessness of God. Plus, how many lyricists can use the word prelapsarian well?

Lit From Within isn’t exactly a concept album, but more a series of connected short stories on the ravages of death, disease and disillusionment. Thematically, it’s almost a sequel to an album by McLean’s old band, the Bonaduces’ Democracy of Sleep, and the connection is referenced explicitly in the haunting track, “Illness as a Metaphor.”

As far as the huge sound of the album, it’s surely a result of McNabb having grown into a producer (and engineer and mixer!) of power and subtlety. Harmonica, piano, violin and banjo add to the dense, shimmering layers of guitars and vocals that dominate the album. The density of the production (as well as the songwriting) shows that the Paperbacks have upped their game in an era where anyone with a laptop and bare minimum of an idea can make an album. While the band shares lyrical and musical ground with indie-rock figures like the Weakerthans or Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, The Paperbacks’ designs — as even a cursory listen of the swelling sound of “A Year on Trial” will attest — are boundless.

The whole band is perfectly controlled throughout. There’s no indulgence, no bloat; no extended jams, no rock opera, no skits, no dub excursions, no sound collages. Every song has a strong melody, a clear point-of-view and fitting instrumentation, and each adds to the effect of the whole — just listen to “Regrettable Tattoos” (with the priceless line, “I’ve got insignias for bands who’ve sucked since 1989”) for proof. Indeed, try to hack out the filler as you build your mp3 playlist and you’ll see — no chaff remains amongst the wheat.

Much, much more could be said, but no one wants a review longer than the album in question. Listen to the entire 126 minutes over a few sittings, and savour the lyrical detail, the stirring tunes, the supple playing, even the cover art that matches the band’s entire discography like it’s a series of books in the same edition. Then, if you need to hear a really short album, go play the Circle Jerks’ 15-minute long Group Sex.

★★★★.5 out of ★★★★★