Released on Tuesday was Murray Lightburn’s first solo album, Mass:Light. I have been a fan of Lightburn’s work with The Dears for over 10 years now. For a while during my teens it bordered on obsession, buying b-sides, rare albums, finding every last rock through which I could squeeze water to quench my ears’ thirst for their Canadian indie goodness. I followed their career closely through 2006’s Gang of Losers, and then mildly through 2008’s Missiles and 2011’s Regeneration Street, though I find myself cycling back to their earlier and mid-career work (No Cities Left is always in my rotation) more frequently than I revisit their later stuff. Through the rise of The Dears’ career, Lighburn was called “the black Morrissey” thanks to his butter-smooth baritone, angst-filled lyrics and malaise-glazed hopeless tone that was a tart and loving nectar to my teenage ears. With the added bonus that no one had heard of them in the States, The Dears earned a place in my juvenile heart they are set to occupy for a long time.
After several personnel changes to The Dears and a couple of albums which I “liked-not-loved,” I was slightly skeptical about Mass:Light, however since it’s free for streaming on Spotfiy I gave it a shot, then was so impressed I hopped over to Google play and bought it after 3 tracks. I find often that solo-projects either sound way too much like the group from which the artist originated or are so much of a departure it does the fans of that previous group a disservice. Or it’s one of those things that just makes you want to listen to the old band again. Not so with Lighburn’s Mass:Light: this is a sweet and savory blend of his songwriting, individuality, and the storied career he’s enjoyed for nearly the last 20 years.
On it’s surface the album is dark, ominous, embalming and immersive like a warm bath. You get in and things start to melt away—heavy synthesizers cut to a part of your brain that lives in the future, however not the actual future, more like the future people envisioned in the '80s (think Blade Runner). Lyrics composed of hopefulness wrought through sorrow, Wendy Carlos-style Bach-flavored interludes, and introspective rhythms and drones delivered at a contemplative pace make a wonderful unity from track to track. There’s a maturity in sound and approach that proves Lightburn has put enough of himself into this album that listeners can easily pull something out, and Mass:Light manages a listenable consistency without getting tired.
From the opening onward Lightburn paints an album full of irony-pop, driving and toe-tapping yet with lyrics that both contrast and unify with the music behind them. A look at the words and you can sense how valuable this album is to Lightburn, and how it could be for us. On “Never See Light” he admits, “I wanted to survive, as well I should,” and on the haunting “In Pieces” he laments, “I fucked my way to you and that’s the only truth.” During “I Believe, I Believe” he openly admits he’s “approaching this with caution, buckling from exhaustion,” painting a picture of how hard he’s worked, how long this has been a goal for him. Placed atop the brooding, orchestral electropop slipstream of the instrumentals these lyrics deliver a clear vision of Lightburn and where he is, where he wants to be, and where we can go with him.
Impressing me possibly the most is the outstanding musicality of the entire record. Through its minor drones and somber mood it’s obviously well crafted and intentful. Breakdowns, key changes, stacked harmonies, the way motifs and ideas evolve and get layered, introduced, removed and reprised below Lightburn’s confident yet pleasant wails are all perfect. One gets the sense that this was built and taken apart thousands of times until it was stacked just right, a musical game of Jenga that leaves listeners without a single block to remove, accepting defeat. He’s got us right where he wants us, and, as we’re reminded in “Motherfuckers,” we’ll “never never get [our] souls back,” and he’s “givin’ you everything, all that I am.” While it’s intensely personal, it’s progressive, and throughout it you can feel the foundation provided him by The Dears and it comes away as a logical next-step.
It’s what a solo album should be: individual, a slight departure, but relatable and familiar. Mass:Light is a heavy and noteworthy accent to Lightburn’s catalog that allows him to get more personal, reveal more of himself, and relate with his fans on a deeper, more conscious and heartfelt level. After 20 years of songwriting he owed it to himself, and, lucky for us, he also felt he owed it to everyone.