Envision a stereotypical art gallery; imagine being ensconced between its swatches of empty space studded with evocative panels. Many would concentrate solely on the canvases. But it's those absences that emphasize blank spaces that allow the works to cement their own context. And it's amid these stretches of vivid and vacuous contrast that Jeremy Greenspan—the son of an art historian—grew up in Hamilton, Ontario ("Canada's forgotten industrial city, like Pittsburgh," says Greenspan).
All of this would be superfluous, of course, if it weren't for So This Is Goodbye by Junior Boys, Greenspan's recording project alongside engineer Matt Didemus. On this, the group's sophomore full-length through Domino Records, Greenspan and company have created a work akin to those of early 20th-century Canadian painter David B. Milne, for example. Milne, working primarily in watercolor, used a fluid touch and overlapping technique to imbue commonplace subjects with stately poise. Likewise, So This Is Goodbye doesn't critique the modern world so much as it celebrates its physical and emotional architecture.
"My songs aren't about me, but the place I'm from," says Greenspan by cell phone from an appropriately isolated plains-state pit stop. "I like songs about places, things, objects, not personal relationships. I'm a visual guy, drawing from movies and places and walking around, because in desolation I find a haunting beauty.
"But when you're from a second-tier city, you usually find beauty in the strangest things," continues Greenspan. "In New York you can list the things you love and they will already have long histories. But in small cities you say you love a stretch of highway, or an industrial plaza. I love making an icon out of nothing. I find it's one of the themes of the record."
So This Is Goodbye is certainly making an icon of Greenspan and his fey yet malleable melodies as a torchbearer of fragile, spacious crooning—a tradition distilled from doo-wop and Sinatra to disco, through Simple Minds, Prefab Sprout, OMD, and Scritti Politti. And now post–New Order electro-house maintains the midtempo moodiness. But the Junior Boys' velvety fop-pop is far from centered on nothing.
So This Is Goodbye does away with the skittish rhythms populating much of Last Exit, Junior Boys' debut recorded with since-departed founding member Johnny Dark. That void is now intentionally half filled with the 110-bpm antithesis to rock 'n' roll's dense bombast.
"Disco is funny because it's dance music filled with reverberating string sections and weird synthesizers," says Greenspan. "The speed is relatively slow, people forget, because house music became so adrenalized. But it's cool how the slower tempo gives it this melancholy, this empty feeling from the musical space, from the feeling that the song might fall apart any second."
So This Is Goodbye inhabits not disco proper but rather a similar pop framework that allows experimentation without alienating listeners with sheer weirdness. Tracks including "FM" and "So This Is Goodbye" maintain a hermetic, minor-key grace akin to studio perfectionists Steely Dan (whom Greenspan reveres), while songs like "In the Morning" and "Like a Child" exhibit wobbly fringes.
Junior Boys' music is perfect for the twilight return from a road trip with friends. That's the Canadian, northern factor—that distant skyline sentiment not of being lonely in a crowd, but of being an isolated pack. Part of the pressurized-cabin-feeling ends come from Junior Boys' simmering means.
"I like synthesizers, especially analog ones, because they are pure electricity, free of the middlemen, and [I like] how they work directly with you to ensure unforeseen circumstances," says Greenspan. "Change parameters and the synth may act like it has a mind of its own; that ghost-in-the-machine, haunting feeling is my other favorite thing. They are so inhuman they have an almost human quality that arises; they are beautiful because you hear something in them that is not you or anything; just this thing trapped trying to get out."
It's through these existential corners and neon details that Junior Boys cast a vibe of agoraphobia stripped of its edge. So This Is Goodbye acknowledges the wide-open spaces while musing on the smaller scenes, and across 10 liquid tracks, it makes for quite a picture gallery.