City And Colour has returned with an album about holding onto the light.
“I’ve become acquainted with the dead,” Dallas Green cries on the opening line to ‘Hard, Hard Time’ from his latest City and Colour album ‘The Love Still Held Me Near’. Accompanied by a blindingly bright guitar and Stones-channelling, woozy backing vocals, musically it’s a stark contrast to the heartbreak Dallas is recalling after a brutal few years for him personally. His experience could make for an extremely bleak album. It has every right to be. But it isn’t. The next line rings out: “And the gratitude I owe to them I could never comprehend.” This is an album that has something to live for.
“You just have to live with it,” he laughs, aware of both the poetry and irony of the sentiment of “living” with death. But it’s what he has become accustomed to in the last few years. “It’s not singular to you; it’s this thing you have to reckon with,” he continues. “It does make it mildly easier.”
Dallas has been living with death for a long time. It’s been with him during every step of his musical career. The teacher that first supported and believed in his music when he was just “a lost little punk skateboard kid” (his words) died shortly after he graduated. In 2010, Dan Achen, who co-produced ‘Bring Me Your Love’, died at 51. Gord Downie, the legendary Canadian rock singer, died in 2017 after a two-year battle with cancer. Mimi Parker, the Low drummer and singer, died late last year from ovarian cancer too. Dallas had released ‘Low Songs’, a pair of covers from the band, back in 2020.
But when City and Colour producer Karl Bareham died tragically while on tour with the band in 2019, it was a loss like no other. “Losing Karl was the hardest version of this I have ever gone through. It was just tragic. And immediate. And very severe,” Dallas admits.
Less than a year later, Dallas’s cousin and drummer in his first band Helicon Blue, Nicholas Osczypko died suddenly too.
Throw in an enforced global hiatus for the best part of a year, Dallas had a lot of time to process both tragedies and out of it came a pair of albums. Recorded just three months apart, Alexisonfire came together for ‘Otherness’ before Dallas went into the studio for ‘The Love Still Held Me Near.’
“I think they both exist because of one another. After the year I had spent in 2019, having a difficult relationship with everything in my life, a lot of these songs are birthed out of finding my way out of the disastrous relationship I had built with myself, and part of that was coming to terms with how I needed to clear the air with my relationship to Alexisonfire,” he explains.
“When I started playing with those guys in that band, I never thought anything would come of anything, so for that to have built itself into two simultaneous careers that created this really giant divide between myself and those guys and even people that like my music for Christ’s sake!
“So finding my way back to a place where I could just write music and feel like I had the outlet with Alexis but also comfortable to make my own music too, and be really proud of both things for the first time in my life, [was special].
“This is the most cohesive I have ever felt as a creative person since I left my parents’ house at 21 to go and tour with Alexisonfire.”
Stepping back into the studio with Alexis, it became apparent that Dallas wasn’t the only one that had been having a tough time. Wade MacNeil came with ‘Sans Soleil’, a song which struck the same chords as ‘Begin Again’ that Dallas had been writing. Chris Steele brought ‘Blue Spade’. George Pettit penned ‘Survivor’s Guilt’. They all had their own problems and had come through the other side. “We were able to realise how safe of a place we have with one another, and that wasn’t lost on us when we started jamming,” Dallas says.
“We were jamming and it was this total love of one another. Just the ability to create with one another still was fuelling that. But I would get home from those jams and just feel so inspired to create that it really let me take a magnifying glass to my own personal turmoil that I had been going through and start writing these other songs too. I just felt so comfortable and so open to creating and making music as this beautiful cathartic process that I had always done in the past. It was really beautiful.”
The positivity that radiated from the Alexis sessions sparked the hope and joy that decorates ‘The Love Still Held Me Near’. What once was a chasm between Alexisonfire and City and Colour has grown much smaller. In fact, the guitars on the new C&C were a carry over from getting in the Alexis groove.
“The best part of Wade and mine’s relationship is when we play guitar together. We are at odds a lot of the other times in our relationship but when we play guitar together, we are one. It’s a really special thing you can do when you’re close with somebody,” he smiles.
Inspired by that relationship, the City and Colour record leans heavily on layering guitars rather than filling the sound with other instruments, which was more common on the latest albums. The opener, ‘Meant to Be’, kicks in with a trio of lush, warm guitars which envelope the listener like an embrace.
That approach allows for a lot of space within this album. There isn’t the same experimentation that its predecessor, ‘A Pill for Loneliness’, enjoyed. Instead, this is an album you can hear the skin and bones of. It’s more akin to those earlier records like ‘Little Hell’ and ‘Bring Me Your Love’ that were born out of Dallas laying himself bare. “I don’t think I’ve mixed my voice this loud and this upfront since ‘Sometimes’. In the same way, I was trying to be raw and emotional; I felt as far as my capability in making a record this way, more confident that I could just be a human being and put some microphones in front of me and my band and we will record. No funny business,” he says.
He adds, “The goal was always for it to be as human-sounding as humanly possible.”
It’s down to Earth with a bump from the psychedelia-tinged explorations on ‘Astronaut’ or the synth-soaked stylings that expanded the scope of City and Colour on ‘A Pill for Loneliness’; an album with so much promise that now feels married to tragedy.
“When I was making that record, I was in a completely different place. Karl and I were crafting this really observational view of the world and what I was reading about and thinking about and making this insanely vibrant soundscape of a record that we crafted over a year. We were just making music,” he remembers.
“Me and Karl spent so much time making it, and he died a week before it came out. We did a tour and a half, and I don’t really think I was there for it. To then have the pandemic unfold. It’s a shame because I would like to go back and relieve it or give it a place in my mind, but I don’t even think about it at this juncture. Not even when I’m playing songs off of it,” he concedes.
“A lot of these songs are birthed out of finding my way out of the disastrous relationship I had built with myself”dallas green
Fittingly, the run-up to ‘The Love Still Held Me Near’ was spent back in Australia with a run of C&C shows running straight into an Alexis tour which is something that hasn’t happened for a long time (“there was a time in my life when that was part of the problem so that, for me personally, I felt very grateful,” he mentions.) Throughout the time back in Australia at the start of the year, Karl was there every step of the way.
“There was no way we weren’t ever going to go back. I don’t think that would do anybody any service by avoiding it. Enough time had passed. It had been three and a half years since we lost Karl; obviously other circumstances for why we weren’t able to go back. I think enough time had passed and the place where most of us were with our grief where we could go back and create new memories but we also went back to the town where it all happened and we were able to – closure is not the word – but able to have a full circle mourning moment. We structured it so the City and Colour tour ended in Brisbane and the Alexis tour started there, so it was this really face it head-on and celebrate. We talked about Karl all the time,” he says but admits it was “a bit strange” opening every show with ‘Meant to Be’, his tribute to Karl.
In those circumstances, many would just power through it without thinking. But not for Dallas. Rather than switching off, “I switch on,” he shares.
“Playing live is just as connected to me as writing the song. It’s where I feel most alive, in that moment. I’m playing in that moment with my band, and it’s happening in real-time. As this could be a brand new journey of playing emotional songs, but I’ve been doing that forever. Maybe nothing as heavy as these will be, but I’ve created this place for myself that when I go up there, I get to work through it. Whatever ‘it’ may be.”
“To me, I’ve made it so much a part of my life; I don’t mean just singing personal songs, but this idea of having to perform and find that other place. George [Pettit] likes to refer to it as going to ‘that other place’, and I believe that. There is so much of me that was there every night appreciating how lucky I felt to be standing there eulogising my friend every night. I could see people in the crowd having their own moment with it and, to me, that’s special too. It’s not lost on me.”
And it’s not just Karl and ‘Meant to Be’ but in all those songs for all those friends down the years. He continues, “There are so many people connected to my musical journey that are gone, and I’m singing these songs every night with them in mind. They’re all connected to it.”
‘The Love Still Held Me Near’ is the defiance to keep living in the face of so much death. As the euphoric and life-affirming ‘Underground’ puts it, “So let’s just forget the unforgiving presence of death / And live wild and free / Godless or not, you can’t let the fear control your body.”
There are some detours but not many. ‘Things We Choose to Care About’ is a deeply personal moment about his own relationships. ‘Bow Down To Love’ is a song “rooted in compassion” written in response to the George Floyd murder in the style of a Helicon Blue number. ‘The Water Is Coming’ is the bottled frustration of the growing societal divisions we face.
For the large part, however, this is an album for Karl Bareham, Nicholas Osczypko and all the other people who came and went on the journey of Dallas Green. It’s about celebrating them and keeping going. “It’s not about succumbing to it but about holding onto the light,” Dallas professes. Death will come one day, and we don’t know what happens after that, but we do know that the grass isn’t always greener. ■
Taken from the May 2023 edition of Upset. City and Colour’s album ‘The Love Still Held Me Near’ is out now.