Patrick Watson is one of those musicians whose work, on paper, sounds like genius. Andrew Bird at his most intricate (though, importantly, not necessarily his best) comes to mind readily enough, and as it happens, Watson and Bird are touring together as we speak. They share a classical musical education (piano and violin, respectively) and a deft sense of composition, of fusing orchestration with accessible structures – those skills that define the best writers of so-called chamber pop.
Not to suggest that Watson’s merit exists merely as a foil to someone else’s, but it’s hard to pinpoint what’s so, well, frustrating about Watson without gesturing toward another artist whose conceptual goals are very similar but whose execution is vastly more successful. Watson, too, wants to surprise and confound us, wow us with intriguing melodies, even comfort us if he so chooses. And he’s spent four albums, now, trying desperately to make these things real.
Though he and his eponymous band have received critical acclaim in Canada – Close to Paradise won the 2009 Polaris Prize (beating out Arcade Fire in the process) and 2010’s Wooden Arms was a finalist – his brand of whimsical, sugary music has been less welcome south of the 49th parallel. His newest won’t likely change that: Adventures in Your Own Backyard is about as confirmatory of an artist’s status quo as an album can be; it takes Watson’s style in no new directions, preferring instead to bask in its own childlike exuberance and to demonstrate all the trappings of ambition but little in the way of earning it.
Opening track “Lighthouse” makes both Watson’s talents as a musician and his faults as a composer clear. The first strains of piano are lovely, ebbing and flowing like a low tide, capturing a bit of the spark in Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” The song builds to include moody guitar plucks and low-volume violin accompaniment, and it sounds for a moment that Watson’s finally struck some restrained, low-fi personality – until a dramatic pause and crescendo of drums and brass turn the song into an infringing rendition of “Live and Let Die.” Old Watson tropes like his invariable high vocal pitch or superfluous “ba ba ba”s are here in force, as is customary. “Into Giants” has some of the jangle of an Edward Sharpe track but none of the borderline derangement that makes that group’s optimism bearable. In older tracks like “Beijing” from Wooden Arms, a sense of discomfort – along with some inventive percussion and compositional restraint – did wonders to balance Watson’s intrinsic lightheartedness. There’s a bit of hope in the moody guitar of “Morning Sheets,” which has something of a distinct personality, but that too is overtaken by the drama of a string section.
It sometimes seems that Watson’s ability truly lies in the latticework of classical composition; instrumentals “The Things You Do” and “Swimming Pools” are well and good in that they harbor no pretense of being pop songs. If Watson would only strike out beyond the picket fence of his tired sound, his next adventure might be just that.