There's nothing missing on the surface of The Rural Alberta Advantage's second album, Departing. A mere 33 minutes long, its ten songs are proof that the three-piece can nail one hook-driven arrangement after another. All based on the same two-sided template, either shimmering, buzzing layers of pop or stripped-down, warm folk, you might have heard very similar tunes elsewhere...like perhaps on their debut album Hometowns. Luckily, the sonic similarities two years on aren't a disappointment when the songs are this much fun, and when the balance between frenzy and restraint is so perfectly pulled off.
On the one hand, there's a cluster of great songs with breakneck drumming, clattering guitars and frontman Nils Edenloff's nasal voice skating around irritably. Balancing these, there's a couple of sweeter tunes, like ‘Colder Days’ and ‘Good Night’, which together call time on the album with simple finger-picking and pretty piano melodies. In all, the songs whip by in a breathless concoction of sweetness and anger, yearning and stomping.
Lyrically, Departing is moodier than Hometowns. Both albums' themes are pessimism versus optimism in romantic relationships and smalltown tales of stagnation and woe. In Departing, Edenloff focuses, unsurprisingly, on the paradoxes of leaving, such as wanting to go but being too attached to the things that are stopping you. Or loving someone you feel you're outgrowing, and wanting somehow both to stay in the relationship and end it.
In the melancholy opener ‘Two Lovers’, Edenloff warns, "If I ever hold you again/I'll hold you tight enough to crush your veins", and it's sung like a lament. This is one conflicted dude – holding someone tight is never too far away from feeling rampant claustrophobia. I've never heard so many variations on this in one album; eight of the ten songs here bear lyrics about just such squeezefests and their spectral demise – Edenloff's alter-egos are men obsessed. It's done most effectively in ‘Barnes' Yard’: “let's slip under the covers just to save our lives,” he sings, hot on the heels of the lovely, desperate: “We struggle to tear ourselves apart in the night/We struggle to tear ourselves apart in the light.” Being in love yet being trapped is the idea at the beating heart of this album, played just right thanks to Edenloff's damn near ardent delivery. It's not hard to empathise.
Adding more pathos is a load of shivery cold weather imagery. Despite being based in Toronto, Edenloff obviously has heavy psychogeographic connections with his rural Albertan hometown, because half the lyrics are wrapped up in fleeces and going ‘brrr’. Connotations of petrifying, withering, decay and being frozen abound. But just as there are two different, interlocking musical paths in the album, and the lyrics pull in two different directions, there's an oppositional force here too – images of rushing blood, cracks forming in the ice and finding new lovers provide glimmers of hope. Thanks to these, and to the songs being so damn catchy, the pessimism running through the album far from overwhelms it. Instead, Departing turns into one of those really good instant rescue albums. If I were feeling romantically shite, forlorn and lonely, and needed a cathartic whine-along as well as enough of a rush to get me up and at 'em again, I'd whack it on.
But though the solid pop craft and relatable, affecting lyrics are there, something's missing. Despite the tight production, the excellent salting of sweet, slower songs around the toe-tapping, punky joys that pulse the album forward, and the occasionally heart-wrenching crescendos, there's a flatness. I'm gonna stick my neck out and say that, even despite stand-outs ‘Stamp’ and ‘Good Night’, there's too much repetition and too few ferocious shows of imagination here. The album never fully soars either imaginatively or musically, and for all the virtues of its crisp, bold path through the blood and ice of wherever Edenloff is in flight from – or towards – this means that it's a disappointment. The RAA seem stuck circling around the same set of ideas, the best expression of which (in my humble opinion) is still on Hometowns – nothing on Departing beats its ‘Don't Haunt this Place’ – the band's outstanding percussive wonder, a gorgeous mix of sadness and light.