A title like Leave No Bridge Unburned conjures images of pushing ahead with no looking back, and it seems that’s just what Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet have done on Whitehorse’s sophomore album.
Where the duo’s Polaris Prize-shortlisted The Fate of the World Depends on this Kiss resonated a softer, more romantic statement, Leave No Bridge Unburned is an inferno of cinematic, Americana—ahem, Canadiana—noir accented by plenty of swaggering ’60s surf-guitar and bluesy melodies. It’s an album that doesn’t allow for easy definition, but that’s part of its intrigue. The tracks move effortlessly through elements of folk, blues, rock and a little country, with McClelland and Doucet’s sultry harmonies at the forefront.
The duo’s full-band sound comes from loops and deft musicianship as the pair layers and swaps instruments. But Bridge marks a first for McCelland and Doucet: the use of a producer. The duo met Gus Van Go at the Polaris gala in 2013, and, after learning he had produced The Oceans Will Rise by the Stills—an album McClelland and Doucet admiring the production on—they decided to record a song with Van Go and his collaborator, Werner F.
McClelland says they sent Van Go the 20 or so songs they had written for a new album, but he wasn’t happy with the original versions.
“It was really good to have someone tell us we need to do better, because it’s usually just us in the studio patting ourselves on the back telling ourselves how great we’re doing,” she says with a laugh. “That was kind of harsh to hear at first, but I think we were happy with that reaction, because it meant he was really going to put everything into this and put his heart into this … I think some of our best songs came after he told us that and we went back to the drawing board. I felt like the floodgates kind of broke down at that point.”
But that didn’t mean starting from scratch. McClelland notes they did end up using the majority of those songs on the album, but only after chipping away at them and making them as strong as possible. Van Go’s main complaint? The tracks were too happy.
“Not that the subject matter was necessarily happy, but they were all in major keys and kind of peppy,” McClelland explains. “I think we were actually making a concerted effort to write songs like that because we were thinking, where can we take things musically on this next record? We’ve got to do something different, it’s got to change in some way and at some point we thought, well, maybe we should write some more upbeat songs. And Gus said to us, ‘This isn’t Whitehorse. You guys, this is what you do and this is why I like it.'”
The experience was akin to having someone describe your own personality to you, she adds. While criticism may not always be easy to hear, McClelland says it brought out a positive result and a strong set of songs. In addition to being sonically bold, Bridge is filled with a captivating cast of anti-hero characters, from Toronto’s mayoral debacle in the new single “Downtown,” to a sinister lover in “Baby What’s Wrong” and a rich man on a quest to send a couple to Mars in “Sweet Disaster.”
“The way Luke and I both write, it’s important to us to be fiction writers as well as telling the truth—I mean, you tell the truth in fiction one way or another,” McClelland says, noting most of the stories are inspired by their constant travels. “I think that’s how you write successful fiction: to have kernels of truth in there, but it’s always been important to both of us not to just tear pages from our diary, and actually challenge ourselves as writers.”
A stand-out for McClelland is the “superhero prostitute” at the centre of “Evangelista,” a song inspired by Bill C-36, where the pre-existing prostitution laws were overturned by the Supreme Court.
“The women that brought that case forward, they were retired sex workers and I just thought they were very brave and bold, and definitely the anti-heroes,” she says. “I loved the idea of telling that story in a non-shameful, victimized way, and, of course, it’s supposed to be a fun and playful song. You know, there might be a bit of a political statement in there somewhere, but it’s really just a celebration.”
Wed, Apr 15 (8 pm)
With Noah Gundersen
Winspear Centre, $31.50