Oh, Dan. What happened to you? What horrendous, depressing event was inflicted on you in the last few years? In the past, the albums of Canadian folk artist Dan Mangan have hardly been easy-listening, and sure, there was always an underlying sense of sadness to the way that Mangan composed his songs, but it was done in a way that kept things optimistic. What we have here in Oh Fortune is something even grimmer, darker, and really rather more depressing.
The contrast with past albums that is initially more obvious though, is the instrumental composition of each song on the album. From the opening track, About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All, which features Mangan’s trademark voice backed by what could very well be a full orchestra, it’s clear that the formula used on past albums – instrumentation taking a backseat to Mangan’s vocal work – has, if not quite been abandoned, certainly been altered. That is not to say, however, that the vocals on Oh Fortune are any worse for wear – much of his previous success has been based on his incredibly powerful voice, and that voice is just as strong on this record as ever – most recognisably in Daffodil, a minimalist, downbeat track that comes out as one of the album’s best – but the instrumentalisation of Oh Fortune, unlike past albums, goes past a few trumpets and the twang of an electric guitar and into orchestral/full-band territory.
Lyrically, Oh Fortune is (to put it bluntly) extremely downbeat. Although Mangan’s previous works were hardly sunshine and roses when it came to his storytelling, there was always a strange sense of charm and even a little bit of humour to the way he sang. Here, there is nothing of the sort. From “Cast out to see/Friendly with waves/There were sharks beneath me/Hungry for meat” to Mangan asking “Should the daylight forgive the awful things that I did?”, it seems pretty clear that the charm is dead. This is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing – replacing the mixture of charm and sadness is all-out melancholy, and had Mangan kept to the instrumental style of Nice, Nice, Very Nice and Postcards and Daydreams, it might not have worked quite so well. Luckily, the addition of large backing vocal sections (such as in Rows of Houses) strings (as in About As Helpful…) and just a little bit of vocal manipulation (Daffodil), means that the album presents a radical enough change in musical direction to justify a descent into the lyrical pit of despair.
All in all, then, this isn’t music to listen to on a sunny day when you’re feeling good. Oh Fortune never, unfortunately, throws out a truly Robots-esque classic either. However, the change in musical direction makes the album intruiging enough, and some tracks (such as Daffodil, Oh Fortune and Rows of Houses, for example) do stand out as being particularly brilliant. This adds up to an album which, though never quite reaching the heights of Nice, Nice, Very Nice, is absolutely worth a listen – or, if you’re feeling down, ten.