When the Dears first drew international attention in the fall of 2004 for their second album No Cities Left, they were often compared (positively and negatively) to the Smiths, the classic British exponent of romantic melancholy. The Dears didn't necessarily sound like the Smiths, but they shared the same sensibility. The Montreal group's vocalist and leader Murray Lightburn, in particular, reached Morrissey-like levels of feverish despair and sensual longing.
And like the Smiths during their '80s heyday, the Dears draw mixed reviews from critics. Some think the band is pretentious and overwrought; a Blender magazine review called it "the saddest indie-rock band in Canada." Others find its music emotionally charged and compelling; a recent review in Spin magazine raved that the group is "sonically raw but melodically rich."
Lightburn is keenly aware of his public and private selves -- the man who leads a relatively successful indie-rock band (the group earned a Juno nomination, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy, for best new artist in 2004), and someone who, at the moment, is trying to stain the wood shutters in his living room while simultaneously talking on the phone.
"On one world, my identity is that guy from the Dears. I could be at an airport, or be at a bar, or at a show and that's my identity. Other times, I'm taking out the garbage, staining wood or at Home Depot and I'm anonymous. It's kind of like having a double life," Lightburn says. "I try to keep a clear separation between my life in the Dears and my life not in the Dears. I realize I have these two worlds and I try to keep them from colliding."
For those who haven't heard the Dears (or the Smiths), the six-member group makes dramatic, sweeping songs that rise and fall along Lightburn's searing declarations. Its third album, Gang of Losers, contains elaborate arrangements, steady rock beats augmented by keyboards and synthesizers. The effect is highly dramatic, and usually reaches a crescendo near the end, as when Lightburn announces, "Clearly this can't be my life," on "There Goes My Outfit."
Some of the song titles are deliberately provocative. One that's drawn particular attention is "Whites-Only Party," where Lightburn sings, "We ain't here to steal your women. Well, at least that wasn't the plan."
"There's a part of me that enjoys when some white folks get uncomfortable just saying the name of the song," chuckles Lightburn, who is black. In contrast, "Fear Made the World Go Round" could either be about the perilous state of international politics -- or simply about a personal issue Lightburn dealt with. He gets nervous when meanings are attributed to his lyrics, a not-uncommon trait among indie-rock artists. Instead, he wants them to be heard as "parables" inspired by real-life incidents, not necessarily nonfiction.
"I think that's the job of any writer. The words are not meant to be taken 100 percent at face value, you know?" he says. He will acknowledge, however, that "there was a part of Gang of Losers that was about resolving some issues and putting them in the past." It's not the most revealing statement in the world.
Ironically, no matter what the music world may think of the Dears -- if it thinks anything at all -- the group has its fans. "Every single one of us is getting massacred on a frozen path/Fear comes to wipe us out and scratch a name off the list/You and I are on the outside of almost everything," sings Lightburn on Gang of Losers' fantastic title track. At the end, synthesizer players Valérie Jodoin-Keaton and Natalia Yanchak answer him, "We, we've got the same heart." It's an inspiring moment that could pull anyone out of the doldrums.
"I don't know how the other guys [in the band] feel ... but I feel like this life chose me," Lightburn says. "Sometimes you've just got to follow it."