Earlier this year, Canadian outfit Patrick Watson, named for their Californian-born frontman Patrick Watson, won the prestigious Polaris Music Prize, which is equivalent to the UK’s Mercury Prize in honoring the best of its country’s albums. Yet, the Polaris prize tends to opt for the underdogs, as last year Final Fantasy beat out Wolf Parade and Broken Social Scene, while this year Patrick Watson won over contenders such as Arcade Fire, Feist and Junior Boys. That’s quite an undertaking, and a hell of an upset. As much as it’s cliché to heap more praise on Arcade Fire these days, it’s not as if they didn’t earn it by putting out one of the year’s best albums. It just so happens that Patrick Watson’s isn’t too shabby either.
Close to Paradise is not as top 40 friendly as Feist, nor as epic as Neon Bible, or as danceably sweet as Junior Boys, but rather has a sweet and delicate pop beauty. The likes of Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright have been referenced when speaking of Watson’s voice, and though he doesn’t have as dramatic a delivery, his range is equally beautiful and impressive as those two crooners. His band, however, is more than versatile enough to complement, and as such cast their nets over a broad array of styles, offering a diverse listen from beginning to end.
With a breezy dance between slide and acoustic guitar, the title track kicks things off with a soundscape that mirrors its own name, beautiful and laid back, recalling a prettier and less U2-tied Coldplay. “Daydreamer,” meanwhile, pairs more atmospheric slide with twinkly piano and glockenspiel, and “Giver” conjures up a dreamy swirl of guitars and piano for an ornate ballroom promenade. Here, the band transcends mere dreaminess and takes a turn for the baroque with bigger arrangements and more volume, not to mention its melancholy, minor key chorus. From there, the album veers into Weill-inspired dramatism in the accordion driven “Weight of the World” and moody acoustic territory in “The Storm.”
The second half of the album picks up again with a stronger pop sound in the single “Luscious Life,” like a jazz-influenced Jeff Buckley traipsing giddily into a noisy swirl of sound. Absolutely brilliant. In another twist, “Drifters” ornately follows the galloping lead piano with eerie atmospheric touches and “Man Under the Sea” finds the band crafting a gorgeously waltzing ballad with more flecks of jazz and a generally glorious product overall.
While Close to Paradise doesn’t soar as high as many of its Polaris competitors in some respects, what it offers is nothing short of brilliantly arranged and impeccably executed pop. Sure, there have been many incredible offerings from Canadian artists in the past 18 months, but after having heard Patrick Watson’s sweet tones, it’s hard not to want to root for the underdog.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.