It’s rare for an album to elicit much emotion from me these days. In some ways, that’s probably a profoundly sad thing to say. I’ve spent so much of my life immersed in cataloging what’s new and what’s making waves and trying to suss out who’s who in a given music scene that I think it’s all become a bit, I don’t know, clinical. Gone are the days when I would stumble across some passable chamber pop at the record store and declare it my New Favorite Album Of All Time after a single listen. There’s just too much of an ingrained second-opinion bias now – the inevitable and irresistible “but…” that follows any endorsement.
That said, there’s also a sense in which that hypercritical devil on my shoulder means that I can trust my instincts somewhat better than I could as a 14-year-old novitiate music buff. My praise is lavished a little more judiciously now that I’m a cold, discriminating taxpayer. So it’s safe to say I was caught fairly off-guard when I started choking up a few songs into Molly Drag’s debut double-LP, Deeply Flawed. The 20-track lo-fi opus from London, Ontario songwriter Michael Hansford touched a nerve that hasn’t seen much airtime since the hormonal days of adolescence.
What intrigued me initially was the fact that Molly Drag sounds a lot like old Cloud Cult, the kings and queens of disguising crippling sadness with gleeful, childlike melodies. But unlike Craig Minowa and the gang, Hansford takes a more direct approach. There’s no attempt to conceal the anguish, frustration, and anxiety that sits at the core of the album – interspersed among the acoustic strumming and ambient distortion are dozens of spoken-word interludes and desperate, screaming outbursts. Each serves as an admonition from the artist to himself. Some are encouraging, others are cruel, but they all bring to visceral life the self-doubt that plagues the creation of art.
As Hansford himself explained to us, “… in creating [Deeply Flawed], I excavated parts of my childhood and memories of old friends, lovers, and lost family members. The recording process began after finding some old journal scraps and photographs from an old friend … It involved stories and different perspectives of past happenings, and the juxtaposition of who and what were involved.” The album feels very much like an attempt to exorcise past demons, but at the same time it seems that Hansford might be getting dragged back down with them in the process. In trying to let go of these memories, he ends up being forced to relive them. It almost makes you feel guilty for enjoying the music.
Lyrically, Molly Drag doesn’t spend too much time trying to be cute. Whether sung, spoken, or screamed, Hansford’s lines often feel like they were made up on the spot. This bluntness and conversational language makes his candor believable, and any attempt to dress it up with a thesaurus would probably start to sound gimmicky. The interjections aren’t just something put on display for the audience, they’re how he got himself through the process of writing each song in the first place. And I mean that quite literally: on “Upbringing,” Hansford announces in a lyric that he’s about to break the fourth wall. He then proceeds to ask between verses, repeatedly and with mounting despair, “Why did I write this song?” Anyone who’s ever made anything, artistic or otherwise, knows the feeling.
Nevertheless, I foresee Deeply Flawed receiving mixed reviews. It’s weird, over-the-top, and maybe a little indulgent on the part of the artist, but what strikes me as more important than all that is that it’s completely genuine. I don’t detect a hint of irony anywhere, and that’s what allows it to overcome its titular flaws and make its more dubious elements work. Michael Hansford means every word that comes out of his mouth.
It’s this honesty that makes Molly Drag exemplary, and I think it’s what allowed me to overcome my usual paralysis when choosing what music to spend my emotional energy on. It’s an album about loneliness, fear, uncertainty, and self-loathing written by a sad guy in an Ontario basement, full stop. And there’s something beautiful about that. Needless to say, Deeply Flawed probably isn’t the sort of thing that’s going to get you out of a dark place. But sometimes it’s enough to know that there’s somebody else wading around with you in the depths.