by Tom Noonan
“It’s actually not that different from Canada in a way that there’s so much space.” Nils Edenloff, the lead singer and songwriter for indie-folk northerners The Rural Alberta Advantage, is talking to me about driving through Texas during the US leg of his band’s tour, but he might as well be giving a summary of their booming new LP, Mended with Gold, which was released on September 30th in the US. “It doesn’t seem super different, but there are a lot of places we haven’t seen before.”
Pull quote conflation aside, the Lone Star State does offer a compelling analog to the sprawling, regularly frozen prairies Edenloff and his two collaborators, Amy Cole and Paul Banwatt, emerged from on their first two albums. Both places have a vast uncertainty to them, an identity that relies on the rarely seen and conceptually untenable. You can’t talk about the prairies in Alberta without getting lost, just like you can’t talk about the endless highways in Texas without worrying about gas. At a certain point, all that space becomes the story.
This is what seemed to happen on The Rural Alberta Advantage’s second album, Departing, where the band’s project of mapping the heartland’s every expanse became too deliberate, inevitably slowing things down to a crawl. It was as if their sense of perspective (which, it should be said, remains a crucial part of the band’s appeal, with their name serving as both a pair of coordinates and a slogan) had suddenly begun to swallow their instincts. You could tell they were going for something more intimate than their first record, but all the extra effort came across as clingy and made listening to the album more or less the equivalent of watching someone follow their own farewell parade back into town.
Three years later, though, chatter around the band’s third LP was comfortably aligning itself along a new and somewhat unfortunate narrative. Edenloff had spent some time alone in a rented cabin on the Bruce Peninsula leading up to the bulk of the writing and recording of Mended with Gold, and that’s all everyone previewing the album was talking about. This was going to be the band’s “cabin record”, a designation which had become popular thanks to the success of a few records that had been forged among the inherent loneliness of rustic wooden shelter. These “cabin records”, like Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and Waxahatchee’s American Weekend, are meticulous retreats into their creator’s carefully manifested and well drawn neuroses. They work because the feelings they want to communicate are small enough to fit indoors. The cabin is both their mind and their heart. It’s also, crucially, their recording studio.
This smallness doesn’t suit the Rural Alberta Advantage, they’re a collaborative group as well as a wonderfully loud one, and it worried me that moving their noise into the now proverbial cabin would cut down too much of its bulk, that the new record would draw more from Jackson Browne’s acoustic work than, say, the Jeff Mangum recklessness that drove the stronger portions of their first two albums.
For anyone who’s heard Mended with Gold (and if you haven’t yet, you should), you already know how unfounded these concerns were. Not only is the new album the band’s biggest and most consistently rewarding to date, it also sticks some dynamite in the cabin and invites everyone listening to light a match. Turns out the whole cabin story was a personal anecdote that involuntarily became the band’s reputation. When I talked with Edenloff last week, he told me that the trip was more of a breather than anything else, a chance to “get some time away and just kind of focus on getting some writing done and unplug from the city”.
It’s probably more helpful, or, if not helpful, then more accurate, to talk about the whole cabin mythos in terms of hibernation, because it implies an emergence. And this story definitely has one of those, with Edenloff coming back to his band fresh, packing memories, and itching to build something massive. “Making the record bigger was something we’d set out for ourselves,” he tells me. “We definitely wanted to, you know, have something that sounded larger, more expansive.” What they ended up making is an album that refuses to retreat into it’s own head, that spills all of its big emotions early and often and doesn’t see any reason to clean them up. At one point, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone influenced “On the Rocks”, the band even starts to use them as paint.
This all works because the canvas these guys built in the studio is big and gutsy enough to sustain their audacity. Most records this knowingly heavy would tip over a few minutes in. This one glides. Part of that dexterity comes from the band’s decision to bring in Matt Lederman to co-produce the album. “He’s been our house sound guy for the last couple years,” Edenloff said of the hire, “and he knows our stuff better than we do. So we figured the best thing would be to have someone who makes our live shows sound amazing help us to sort of bring that bigness to the recording process.”
The other part has to do with how Edenloff chose to write for this LP. It’s a very “we” and “our”-heavy record, which also ends up making it the bands most inclusive. As a lyricist, he has always attempted to find commonality through the specifics of his own emotional stakes, letting people recognize themselves in what they can then spend the rest of the time feeling for him. On Mended with Gold, he somehow, sublimely, manages to do both of these things simultaneously.
The best example of this comes during “Vulcan, AB”, another Casiotone homage, when he punctuates a powerfully conflicted chorus with two lines of knockout imagery: “You and me and the Enterprise” his slightly effected, almost robotic voice warbles, “stuck in Vulcan telling lies.” He’s of course referencing the titular town of Vulcan, AB and the Enterprise statue that stands at its center, a place about as narrow as any he’s written about before, but the repeated Star Trek allusions he hammers home do something smart: they dilate the song’s perspective and open things up even more. We’re still in Vulcan, but zoomed out enough that you can barely tell. This is Edenloff putting himself up against all of the universe, even if it’s a fictionalized and knowable one. Or, what seems like another way of saying that, it’s Edenloff putting himself up against all of loneliness. This is the anti-“cabin record”.
Mended with Gold was released about a month ago, so its reach is still very much growing. “It’s a pretty emotional record,” Edenloff tells me about where the LP stands in his mind now, “and I think the more that we’ve been playing it, and the more people we’ve been meeting, it’s clear that it’s touching people in ways that we hoped and even in ways that we hadn’t intended.”
The cathartic touch of the Rural Alberta Advantage is currently touring the US, and will be making its way to Philly on Wednesday, November 12th at the First Unitarian Church. Come out and bring the biggest feelings you can get your hands on. You won’t be alone.