Published Apr 15, 2020When Joel Plaskett gathered 12 other musicians into his studio in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, preparing to track some songs for his latest project, 44, he had one request: "No matter what happens, keep going."
This mentality not only defines his latest release — a 44-song retrospective spectacle — but his entire prolific career as the East Coast's beloved musician-for-everyone. This is a man who hit the road immediately after high school and never stopped; who has released records solo, with his band and with his dad; and who built his own studio in order to produce records for artists like Steve Poltz and David Myles. Through more than two decades, Plaskett has simply kept going, writing innumerable songs that balance lighthearted colloquialisms with introspection, affection and care.
Coming a day before his 45th birthday, 44 is an impressive retrospective of Joel Plaskett's life and work — a massive, eclectic reflection that shows all sides of Plaskett. This album sees Plaskett continuing his affinity for conceptual records, with 44 following in the footsteps of 2009's triple album Three (released before his 33rd birthday, of course) and carries the same rough-and-tumble attitude of 2012's Scrappy Happiness, for which a song was written, recorded and released every week for three months. While running the risk of releasing a gimmick as never before, 44 lives up to its self-prescribed challenge through its range: diverse, intermingling musical genres; a list of 33 collaborators, from Charlotte Cornfield to Al Tuck; and dynamic songwriting that includes both lo-fi acoustic ballads and explosive, full band arrangements.
More than anything, Plaskett's effective musical collaborations make this record a bonafide event. Plaskett's Halifax protégé and touring partner Mo Kenney appears throughout the album, including on the horn-driven album standout "Head over Heels into Heaven." "Spinning Out," featuring stellar sister vocalists Reeny, Mahalia and Micah Smith, builds to some impeccably belted four-part harmonies. "Action, Camera, Lights" — classic, bouncy Plaskett noodling electric guitar and crooning witticisms — gets some added punch from East Coast songwriters Rose Cousins and Ana Egge. There's no time to drift off — there's a new voice, a new sound, on nearly every track.
While Plaskett has already navigated a range of genres on previous work, the scope of 44 allows his to explore even further. "The Right Direction" a three-minute meditation sung above a slow-burning, cinematic soundscape; its twin, "Dxx," serves as a palate cleanser a couple discs later. The touching, lonely ballad "Strange to Be Involved" is more experimental than Plaskett usually gets, with its whispered melodies, wanderings synths and rattling, percussive loop. The record even dips into gospel with the energetic "Melt the Universe with Brotherly Love."
Of course, there is also plenty of classic Joel Plaskett across these songs. If there were any doubts about his undying affection for his native Halifax, there is "The Wizard of Taz," an ode to the beloved Halifax record store. The moody rock track "Just Because" might be Plaskett's heaviest work since his Thrush Hermit days, and "Brand New & Brokenhearted" sounds like an outtake from 2007's Ashtray Rock. 44 also has its share of touching, straight-ahead folk pieces, like "Matthew Grimson Songs," a bittersweet ode to the late Halifax singer-songwriter who was a favourite of Plaskett's (as he told Exclaim!, all the way back in 2000).
Of course, in a collection this massive, there are numerous questionable choices. But even when he's meandering, Plaskett is self-aware, like on "Is This Actually On" when he mutters, "Can't find the chorus, is this a song?" He characteristically recycles lines, spends a good deal of time on the fourth record singing about "Dreamland" (the album's final destination), and keeps in numerous rough moments and dubious takes.
But this is what Joel Plaskett is all about: he keeps going. Roll the tape, see where it goes, then fit it into a frame (or four). 44 is proof that Joel Plaskett can write about anything, collaborate with anyone, and create without stopping.