Over two years in the making, Spirit If… is both a new experiment in the solo life of one of the members of the `Scene’ and also a welcome return of that collective. Unlike the majority of side projects that spring from this never-ending well of talent, Kevin Drew’s Spirit If… does not stray far from the original BSS blueprint that put their name on the map. Part of that is likely due to the fact that Drew is one half of the original membership of the band, alongside Brendan Canning, and, after listening, part must be due to the influence Drew’s writing has had on the band. It should be noted, as has been widely reported already, that this is the first in a series from Arts & Crafts aptly titled Broken Social Scene Presents…. Time will tell if Canning’s debut solo release, in early 2008, shares similar sensibilities. With Spirit If… however, other than the fact that Monsieur Canning only appears on three tracks, and that Dave Newfeld isn’t producing, it’s fairly obvious that this is an extension of the genius that is BSS, yet more focused on Drew’s quieter, more emotional songwriting.
“Farewell to the Pressure Kids” features the now requisite multi-layered and chaotically, yet beautifully arranged composition we’ve come to expect. Drew himself provides most of the instrumentation, but Justin Peroff provides a barrage of intense drums. After a round of well-controlled chaos and a short reprieve, the melody is restored in a more direct form without the usual fuzz. In a way, “Farewell” stands as an introduction to the feel of the rest of the album. Sure, there are some moments of instrumentation overload, but for the most part, Drew’s songs are like the second half of the song, more restrained and direct. Drew’s paramour, the lovely Feist, provides some gentle backup vocals to his whispery delivery on the track. “TBTF” is making the rounds as a downloadable mp3, with the acronym standing for `Too Beautiful to Fuck.” Despite the directness of the title, the song is a subtle and melodious ballad, definitely benefiting from the horns and production of Do Make Say Think’s Ohad Benchetrit and Charles Spearin. Like “TBTF,” “Fucked Up Kid” is relatively quiet and uncomplicated, in opposition to most BSS tunes. Yet, for those who were mesmerized by Drew’s songs such as “Lover’s Spit” and “I’m Still Your Fag,” the songs on Spirit If… will have you entranced.
Despite the absence of Feist on “Safety Bricks,” the strummed tune with sweet backup vocal flavor sounds like a gorgeous forgotten leftover from The Reminder, perhaps especially because of the standout plucked banjo notes from Spearin. Several of the BSS, if not all, make appearances on Spirit If… including Jason Collett on the gloriously produced “Lucky Ones,” (complete with Eagles’ like backup vocals) with Amy Millan, Emily Haines, Evan Cranley and Andrew Whiteman on a number of tracks. But other, less likely, collaborations occur as well, including Pavement guitarist Spiral Stairs (aka Scott Kannberg) on “Lucky Ones,” which I cannot say enough about, being the longest and most fully realized song on the album. J. Mascis, of Dinosaur Jr., makes an appearance on “Backed Out on the Cocks,” and his influence reverberates throughout the song, with guitars that both act as white noise rhythms and classic rock riffs that, as Jack Black would say, would melt some faces. As a side note, I have put all song titles in their, most likely, intended form. I find it interesting that in the packaging, most references to profanity is removed, yet profanity exists in nearly every song, and several titles on this album. Yet, somehow, Drew makes us forget, thanks to the beautiful, yet unapologetic ways in which he constructs his songs, that they even exist in the first place, or are meant to offend.
Speaking of off-putting titles, another song that I can’t say enough about is “Gang Bang Suicide,” easily the least adorned cut on the album, yet easily the one with the most emotional resonance, much like “Lover’s Spit.” A friend of mine told me that when he listened to it, he nearly bawled like a baby. It had the same effect on me. This is also probably Drew’s shining moment as a vocalist. He may not be pitch perfect, but he captures the fragility and tenderness of a heart wide open. The lyric, “They say size doesn’t count, but my heart is a house,” says it all. After “Lucky Ones,” it’s the second longest track on the record, allowing Drew to stretch out and explore the musical terrain. Drew claims that his favorite songwriting topics are summed up in the four letters, FFFH, standing for `fighting, fucking, fearing and hope.’ Each one of the tracks on Spirit If… can easily fall into one or several of these categories and the exquisite “Frightening Lives” with its majestic guitar build-up could probably fall into all four. At times it might be difficult to find the hope inside lines like “like spoken sex and all our fear, everyone does what they feel, but you know that I can’t live inside this war without our bed,” but, trust me, if you look for it, it’s there.
“Underneath the Skin,” a short instrumental interlude and its follow-up, the lyrically sparse “Big Love,” act as a one-two punch of meandering psychedelia, a la Animal Collective. “Aging Faces / Losing Places,” a song collectively penned by Drew, Spearin, Canning, Whiteman, Millan and Cranley, making it probably the closest thing to a BSS collective feel, is sung by the three BSS heroines, Millan, Haines and Feist, and floats as gently as a fallen cupped leaf on a mountain stream. Drew artfully captures the disjointed ideas of growing old with someone. The `pressure kids’ make a return in “Bodhi Sappy Weekend,” another song that was a collaborative writing effort. The refrain of “Please don’t scratch me out” is a desperate plea amidst some disturbing lines. “When It Begins” is somewhat a “Happy Trails” for the BSS crew, at least for now, as they sum up my feelings about the album, giving us the message, “It’s gonna be really hard when we get to the end / But don’t forget what you felt.”
In the end, that’s what Drew’s songs are all about—feeling something. He might be talking about some kind of existential look at life in general, but it also works for Spirit If…, a magnificent, more focused look at Kevin Drew’s musical worlds. For me and others like me, Spirit If… is a win-win situation. Not only do we get a further glimpse into the more gentle side of BSS, but we also get songs reminiscent of that collective, thanks maybe to the fact that some of these songs were either castoffs from previous albums or were simply written at around the same time. I’m not as confused as most as to whether this is an unofficial Broken Social Scene album or a Kevin Drew solo effort. What I am confused about is which of the various BSS related projects is my favorite. After Spirit If…, I just can’t decide.