Register Thursday | February 9 | 2023

Horseplay Is Fun (Sort Of)

Getting intimate with the latest album by the Besnard Lakes

Just so we’re clear, The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse might not be for you. This album won’t make you smile. It won’t romanticize your presence at the stoplight or add depth to your daily errands. Despite claims that this album is more pop than the last, it serves none of those pleasant functions of pop music—the palatable song lengths notwithstanding. The Dark Horse is an intriguingly moody conversationalist, but its self-absorption might make you think twice before going on a second date. I ended up liking it after multiple rotations, but it was something of a bitter process—just so we’re clear.

That said, there is no doubt that The Dark Horse includes many essential elements of pop music, including some wonderful harmonies, well-timed builds and falls, and a strong emphasis on the vocals. Nearly every melody bleeds into dissonance, and the sound of the album is fullest when at its darkest.  

The Besnard Lakes’ previous album, Volume 1, which is currently only being distributed in Europe, was “an experiment in atmosphere and direction,” according to Jace Lasek, who wrote the songs and produced the album with his girlfriend Olga Goreas. This latest effort, says Lasek, “is more straight ahead for fun.” I guess like wax museums are fun, or like lying awake in your bed at night and feeling sort of scared is fun. It is fun, but milk’s not going to squirt from your nose.

Some words other than “fun” that are currently being used to describe this new album, which comes out in February from Jagjaguwar, include: “psychedelic,” “progressive,” “experimental indie pop” (which is to say that every song changes constantly). Phrases like “gushes and swirls of noise” and “orchestral weaves” crop up in reviews too. The music surges, roils, swells and billows; it crumbles, froths, sparkles and sputters. The creamy/cool intonations of singer Olga Goreas can be gripping, but the music’s insistent metamorphosis, while deftly handled, can become grating for those of us who secretly want a soundtrack.

When it comes to experimentation, Lasek says he wanted to “take more from the fifties and sixties,” from artists like Roy Orbison and Brian Wilson. Intriguingly, one of the initial inspirations for this album was David Lynch’s incorporation of Roy Orbison songs into his films. You remember the scene in Mulholland Drive where they go into the theatre and the lady on stage is singing a solo Spanish version of “Crying”? That is the sort of “strange psychedelic David Lynch moment” that Lasek wanted to tap into with this album. Learning this really changed how I listen to the album, or rather instructed me on how to listen to this album, and consequently made me appreciate the somewhat twisted creativity that went into it a lot more. The Besnard Lakes are never trite.

Born as it was in the origami heart of the Montreal music scene, in Lasek’s Breakglass Studios, with help from members of The Dears, Godspeed, Stars and Bionic, The Dark Horse will speak most intimately to people who have spent significant time on the stage and in the studio. When asked to imagine an ideal listening scenario, Lasek says, “Probably just lying down.”

The lyrics are consistent with the confrontational and haunting sound, as The Dark Horse appears to be, at least in part, an anti-war album fraught with unsubtle denunciations of the culture that creates it. In “Devastation,” the most anthemic song of the batch, Olga Goreas holds forth in a digital moan: “Your remaining people have no/ Trenches left from which to fight/ The rich militia hold their guns/ With rich smiles on their faces.” While the album is notable for its aural qualities rather than its literary excellence, I have a hard time forgiving the Besnard Lakes for song titles like “And You Lied to Me” and “Because Tonight.” On the other hand, there is an interesting narrative arc throughout the album that has to do with espionage from the fifties and sixties. “There can be songs that involve the Cold War,” says Lasek, who leaves it to us to sort out who is spying on whom and why.

The Dark Horse definitely snuck up on me, the sly intelligence of the music peeking out from behind walls of textured sound. The experimentation on this album speaks to the challenges of any good relationship. If you spend time going beyond first impressions and choose to get horizontal with the Besnard Lakes, you’ll be rewarded. If you decide your mood is more casual, however, you might be left alone on date night, wandering in the dark.