By Jason Schneider
The cover of The Sadies’ new album is a powerful image of the northern lights made by photographer David Kilabuk in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, a sight few of us will ever get to behold with our own eyes. Yet, the awe-inspiring natural beauty and mystery captured in the photo are an ideal reflection of the music contained within. No further embellishment seems necessary.
That’s been the essence of The Sadies’ story ever since the quartet comprised of singer/guitarists Dallas and Travis Good, bassist Sean Dean and drummer Mike Belitsky first exploded onto the North American scene 20 years ago. Back then there was still something called “alt-country,” a catchall for artists striving to carry on traditions with punk rock attitude. The Sadies certainly fit that description, but the breadth of their skills and musical knowledge was unparalleled since a group of fellow Torontonians left Ronnie Hawkins in the mid-‘60s to take a job backing Bob Dylan.
As the aurora borealis shifted with each album The Sadies made, the overall picture took on more defined colours. On top of that was the incredible list of collaborations—Neko Case, R&B legend Andre Williams, The Mekons’ Jon Langford, Jon Spencer, Robyn Hitchcock, John Doe, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Gord Downie, Neil Young for fuck’s sake!—each one pushing The Sadies’ own sound into new, unmapped territory. Eventually, more time was taken in between albums as focus shifted to their original songwriting, and what was once the best live band in Canada became the best band in Canada, period.
Is it fair then to call Northern Passages their masterpiece? Yes, at least until the next album comes along. With “Riverview Fog” setting a haunting tone off the top, the sense of time collapsing is palpable. The psych-folk touches are no mere homage; this is the sound of our inscrutable world, and how we manage to survive in it. The song began as a letter to their friend Rick White, whose contributions, both musical and visual, have played a huge role in The Sadies’ story. Although White wasn’t involved with Northern Passages, embedded within “Riverview Fog” is hope that White will return to the fold.
Conversely, other friendships are on display, specifically the track “It’s Easy (Like Walking),” sung by Kurt Vile who became a convert after touring in support of The Sadies years ago. Without a second thought, he laid down his vocal part in the midst of his own grueling tour schedule. It’s one of the album’s standouts to be sure, but resides in the shadow of Northern Passage’s centrepiece, “The Elements Song.” Perhaps never before has everything The Sadies do best been harnessed in the span of five minutes. And perhaps fittingly, it was the starting point for Northern Passages when the band convened at the home of Dallas and Travis’ parents north of Toronto to record throughout the winter of 2015, with Dallas once again handling production duties.
“That was the first song I wrote for this album, and it was completely an extension of our last record, Internal Sounds,” Dallas Good says. “It took the longest to write, and took the longest to record, so in a way it gave the record this daunting feeling.”
However, Dallas is quick to note that Northern Passages contains several humourous moments, albeit of the extremely dark variety he’s known for. One is the album’s most overt “country” song, “God Bless The Infidels,” a scathing takedown of religious hypocrisy perfectly suited to our current social climate. Although Dallas has never proclaimed any political allegiances in his work, there are times like now when reality checks such as this are absolutely necessary.
As Dallas has found his songwriting voice over the last several albums, so too has Travis on Northern Passages. That’s evident on the tracks “Through Strange Eyes,” “Questions I Never Asked” and “As Above, So Below,” some of Travis’ strongest material yet. “I always want to hear Travis perform songs that show what he’s capable of,” Dallas says. “He did that all over this record, especially the three songs on which he sings lead.”
The overall group mentality of huddling in a basement for several months, Big Pink-style, actually led to some parallels to the 2004 project The Unintended with Rick White and Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor. Northern Passages’ hazy instrumental “The Noise Museum” would have fit nicely alongside that record’s deep woods psychedelia, while closing track “The Good Years” (containing among other killer lines, “He haunted her before he was dead”), is a prime example of the “northern gothic” approach The Sadies have all but patented.
Despite the eclecticism at the heart of The Sadies’ sound, Northern Passages’ main strength is a cohesiveness that gives it a more consistent feel overall. Dallas credits this in part to recording with no time restrictions or distractions, and, significantly, by returning to the same space where he and Travis first started playing in bands. “We had nothing to lose by trying to make the record down there, and we weren’t sure if anything good would come out of it,” he says. “But removing any unfamiliar elements allowed us to focus a lot better. My parents’ basement turned out to be my favourite studio yet.”
Given all of their associations and tireless touring regimen, it can seem at times as if The Sadies are everywhere, all the time. Yet, they are a band that fans cling to like a closely guarded secret, with each new release fulfilling the promise to reach further, for all of our sakes, not just their own. With Northern Passages, the time has come to make room for more on this wild acid-folk-country-punk trip, and trust me, we’ll be better off because of it.