Husky-voiced singer songwriter Dan Mangan earned a Polaris Prize nomination for his first major label release, Nice, Nice, Very Nice, last year. Whereas that album focussed on the intricacies of songwriting and lyrics, his follow up disc, Oh Fortune, goes to great production lengths to establish a musical atmosphere that isn’t Top 40 rock, but which does aspire to a larger, heavier scale.
Right from the building piano intro and string section on the opening track, “About as Helpful as You Can Get without Being Any Help at All,” that shift in direction is conspicuous. The song braces you for a whimsical journey, flowing seamlessly into the next track, “How Darwinian.”
“People don’t know what they want / They just know they really want it” – it’s these little snatches of half-cynical, half-cathartic poetry that Mangan plays as his trump card throughout the album. He’s got a full voice, and a raw voice, but one that goes down smooth all the time.
The leading single, “Rows of Houses,” goes much farther than any other cut to create a raw roots-rock sound, a more conventional radio tune than anything previously released, with a gang vocal chorus of “ohhh’s” over a slick electric guitar. On the other end of the spectrum is “Starts with Them, Ends with Us,” a song with close ties to a tune like “Fair Verona” from Nice, Nice, Very Nice in the way that it takes an acoustic melody and a folksy chord progression and builds throughout the entire song. All the musical pieces are geared towards the overarching sound of the individual songs and the mood of the record as a whole, and in layering each track with nuances.
One of the best aspects of Dan Mangan’s songwriting is the way his lyrics end up sounding more like conversation that happens to rhyme. You don’t exactly get the intimate feeling that he’s speaking directly to you – the songs are more built up than that – but they do have a personal touch. Like on the jazzy, closing track, “Jeopardy,” where he sings a slew of disjointed questions: “What’s left to burn? What’s worth burning? What’s flammable? What happens when all flags burn together? Is that unity? Is that unity? Is it meaningful to be angry? Who’s angry? Are you angry? Why do I get the feeling you might be angry?” It shouldn’t work as a lyric, shouldn’t fit any meter, but it somehow does.
Dan Mangan takes leaps of faith on Oh Fortune and breaks out of conventional song structures, but he never strays too far from what he knows will work. Instead, he takes the best of his craft and adds to it, to make a record with a unique flavour and a sound that bridges the gap between sweaty pubs and stadiums.