Let’s get this out of the way. I’ll say without hesitation that Mosey is Daniel Romano’s best work, and that Ancient Shapes is my personal favorite Romano record, and I say that as a genuine fan.
Together they provide a portrait of a person who is one of our only geniuses working today, and one of the only truly interesting and weird songwriters working on a high level, that I can think of, in Canada anyways. There’s no-one doing what Dan is doing, and no-one with the courage to do it, no-one with the all round skill to do it. Sometimes I find his work laughable, or ridiculous, sometimes his lyrics make me roll my eyes, often I see him copy himself or others, but I still defend my choice of words.
Mosey is a sprawling, weird, wonderfully epic record. Overtly poetic, funny, menacing, beautiful at times, it’s still country music, in places, but it draws as much from french pop and rock and roll – it’s more Lee Hazlewood than George Jones. The melodies and structures are wonderful – loosed from the self imposed strictures of country music, Romano’s skill and flair for melody makes itself abundantly clear. Everything is instantly memorable – Romano is never not a pop musician – but also unique – the way two wildly different parts of ‘Valerie Leon’ interlock, like pieces of a puzzle; the breezy but complex ‘Hunger Is A Dream You Die In’, which displays the kind of oddball pop songwriting the Beach Boys used to practice, but so few bands bother with today – verse, chorus, strange bridge all floating top one another in strange but perfect arrangement. There are gorgeous string arrangements, there are songs that are puns, there are songs that are the darkest Romano has produced. On Mosey, Romano flips the script again, switching voices, hairstyles, outfits, and sounds for the fourth time in recent memory, and yet it feels like the closest he’s ever come to making a personal record. Amid the instrumental interludes and speak singing verses, it feels like he’s revealing himself, perhaps for the first time.
A few months ago, I saw Dan play with his new band in Kingston. His band looked alike, as though he’d hired them so they could moonlight as Romano doubles, in a pinch. In their cowboy hats and tight pants, they tore through intense, almost psychedelic versions of the songs. Romano was on electric, tearing out fast solos, singing in a high strained yowl. At one point, with intense gravitas and no discernible irony, he read a poem off someone’s iPhone, scrolling down the glowing screen with his long, guitar pick fingernails. Later, looking momentarily tired, he took off his guitar and sat down on the stage for a moment, while, as though by secret communication, his brother Ian played some jazzy drum solo for a long, tense minute. It was probably the most entertaining show I saw all year – bizarre, hilarious at times – and it was also quite simply the best. It was also dark in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. Standing almost behind the stage, my view was mostly of the crowd, drunk students, bros, with confused, expectant looks on their faces – their responses utterly different to mine, as though we watched entirely different performances. One woman shouted, in every break, ‘play Time Forgot To Change My Heart!’ Dan attempted it but he couldn’t remember the words. She got mad, and after the show, there was an altercation outside that almost turned physical. ‘You didn’t write that song’ she shouted drunkenly in his face, Dan slight and almost shaking, ‘You can’t forget your own song! You didn’t write that song! You’re faking it!’
Sometimes I think that Daniel Romano is this strange sort of cipher, a prism that reflects back some truth about Canadian music – or music anywhere, I suppose. The woman in Kingston, shouting at Daniel Romano that Daniel Romano didn’t write Daniel Romano’s songs is in some way, all of us, the part of us that wants or thinks we want authenticity – that falls in love with a musician because of what we think they represent, because of who we think they are, that overlooks the music itself. The part of us that has inadvertently given birth to a hundred jean jacket wearing singers who we know the name of but cannot recall their songs, somehow, who have given us no meaningful lyrics, no memorable moments worthy of being on the national stage, if I can say we have one. Come Cry With Me is one of the only recent records I can think of that I find laugh out loud funny, and I mean that with no disrespect. The reviews seemed to see it as Sleep Beneath The Willow 2, focusing on the weepy ballads, causing me to wonder if I had the same record everyone else did, the one with the ballad about the transvestite, the downright weird ‘Chicken Bill’, the part where Romano said ‘hello ladies..’ into a wash of reverb. It was as though the image Romano had created of himself – stock still, hair slicked back, singing songs of sadness, overwhelmed the music itself, and no matter how much Romano wore a Nudie suit or did a fake Kanye-esque interview wearing turquoise rings or made bizarre music videos, he would always be, depending on your interests, the the person we met on Daniel Fred & Julie, crouched over a tape machine and a beaten up acoustic, or the lead singer of Attack in Black, which despite a hundred YouTube queries, has no plans to reunite.
In this context, Mosey may be completely misunderstood, indeed, it probably will be. But I would argue that the thing that has made Romano interesting has never been him, necessarily – it has never really been his life story he sang – but rather his craftsmanship, his humour, his sheer ability, which he shows more completely on Mosey than on his last couple releases. Increasingly, it is his mercurial qualities that make him interesting to watch, honest even in his dishonesty. On Mosey he moves towards actual authenticity, which is weirder and darker than the authenticity the music consuming public seems to want, which perhaps has never been a Canadian with an Italian name making country music whilst wearing rhinestones.
‘Pleased to meet you’ Romano sings sullenly, on track five of Mosey, and then the refrain, delivered in an obsidian baritone, underlined by abrasive violin: ‘mystery me’. It sounds a bit like the theme song to a forgotten Bond film, as though the lyric was meant to be ‘mystery man’ but it got flipped into ‘mystery me’. It’s a joke and a pun and truly heavy, all at once. It’s also true, or feels true anyways, for all of us, not least of all Romano, who adopts and discards personas with such dexterity. On Mosey, Romano has lost the cliches that worked in genre but felt at times like shorthand, mild laziness – these characters no longer ride on trains or sleep in old shacks, rather a woman lives on the thirty second floor of ‘one hundred regrets avenue’, a line that made me laugh, but the song itself is menacing, intense, as the woman says, to the narrator, ‘there’s quite a viciousness in you’, and I believe her. Emotionally, the record is heavy, as Romano sweeps aside the omniscient male persona he inhabited for so long; ‘coward – my mask is my trade’ yowls Romano, in his most unhinged singing yet, and it’s only track two. On ‘Valerie Leon’, the narrator seduces and then tires of the titular Valerie, within two verses, and unlike the narrator in previous work, his cruelty is never redeemed or explained. Throughout, he unpacks a palpable, almost malicious restlessness – ‘one more time I make my rounds to find out what I’m still without – hunger is a dream you die in’. ‘I’m Alone Now’ could be the closer on a late period Dylan album – Romano’s voice, and hairstyle, for that matter, has been inching towards Dylan for a while now. It’s classic and perfect and breezy – the ‘barenaked rain of a silver-less cloud’. In it, Romano drinks coffee, thinking about ‘peace in the valley, and mules in the grass – drunk with fidelity and reading old vows – I’m alone now’. For me this feels like an examination of the person that wrote ‘Knowing That You’re Mine’ or ‘Louise’ – love songs for an eternal love that was not, in fact, eternal. The glimpse of life comes in the end of the song, after he says again how he is alone, and then he sings, barely audible over the fade-out, ‘somebody come over…’ no longer the person who was ‘Lost For As Long As I Live’ but rather someone more human, who perhaps we recognize, who is alone, but not with perfect stoicism. ‘Gone Is’ and ‘Dead Medium’ feel like a pair of statements about how Romano sees the world at present, where ‘they’re building a tombstone of plastic and sweatpants – this surely will last as the darkest days pass, and we build a future convenient and crass’. It’s cynicism delivered poetically – ‘no beauty for anyone’, he sings, almost tenderly. In the context of Romano’s work, the expansion of subject matter beyond familiar romantic narratives feels positive, exciting.
There are things I dislike on Mosey, as there are on every Romano record I own. But I’ll say again that Daniel Romano is the folk musician the folk musicians of Canada are afraid to be, and I include myself in that. Watching a friend live as close to the wire artistically as Romano does on this record is quite simply refreshing – inspiring. The Houston Verts of the world will never make an album like this. It is a reminder of a time when a pop album was meant to be a a big technicolour entertainment, meant to contain a full world, funny and salacious, romantic, madcap, heavy and objectively good. It’s the kind of record people used to make, but don’t now, because we don’t want them to, because they are afraid, because so few people cultivate these skills. It is also unique, a reflection of the person who made it, who is flawed in a thousand ways, but using the entirety of their skill and time, fearlessly, or with outrageous ego, as the case may be, to create an anachronism in a dying medium.