It feels as if I’ve been writing and rewriting this review in my head for weeks now, as I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy of Oh Fortune last month. Now, sitting down to figuratively put pen to paper (“fingers to keys” just doesn’t have that same ring about it), my thoughts are disjointed, incomplete, hazy and fuzzy with bursts of clarity, which, by the way, is the complete opposite of what Dan Mangan has done on his third–and best–album.
Oh Fortune finds Mangan’s heart tucked safely back into his chest and off his sleeve, and that suits his songwriting extremely well. The album’s themes of loss, sadness, aging and hanging on to your youth are emotional enough on there own that Mangan doesn’t have to overplay the sentiment. Lyrically, he’s still writing from a first-person perspective, but there’s often a sense of detachment, as if he’s more narrator. For me, that makes these songs much more interesting, and encourages repeated listens.
The album opens with the waltzing “About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All”, a blustery blizzard of percussion and spunk that sets the tone for the lush production that’s about to be sprung on us. Mangan has retired the strumming singer-songwriter style to focus attention on detail and arrangement, adding more strings and horns like on the haunting “If I Am Dead”, a song whose roots are in solo guitar and vocal soil, but has blossomed into a beatufiul and delicate orchestral flower with layers of instruments added to stunning effect. he can still rock out with the best of them: “Post-War Blues” and “Rows of Houses” stand as the the album’s most straight-ahead rock moments, but it’s songs like “Daffodil” and the title track where Mangan shows the most artistic growth. Some have criticized Mangan for trying to be “too perfect” with these songs, but I think the complete is opposite: Mangan is letting the songs grow and take shape the way they want, instead of trying to wrestle them into a specific sound or style. In hindsight, that’s the thing that kept Nice, Nice, Very Nice from really taking off (artistically, not buzz-wise): his songs wanted some room to breath but they could only conform to the shape of their container.
Oh Fortune more than lives up to the anticipation that its predecessor has spawned. In my opinion, it’s the better of the two albums by huge leaps and gain, and truly solidifies Mangan’s reputation of one of the country’s best performers. It is an evolution in sound that I can find no fault with. I only hope that my hitherto disjointed musings have been able to do it justice.
Oh Fortune is released Tuesday, September 27, 2011 on Arts & Crafts Records.
Tags: Dan Mangan, QBiM SPiNS