Hillsburn’s latest album is a portrait of a society fraying at the seams, and it feels alarmingly familiar in the Covid era.
Recorded in Vancouver as the pandemic set in in March 2020, Slipping Away confronts the inane monotony of so much of our collective existence, the struggle to get by, and our reliance on alcohol/television/food/pills/fill-in-the-blank to provide the much needed respite that allows us to keep going. On its face, this might seem like a bleaker vision than songwriter Paul Aarntzen has previously put forward, but the characters that inhabit these songs aren’t hapless victims. They know the score. Their pain is cast not as requiem, but as prelude — there is a sense that they take stock in order to chart a new course. There is, after all, freedom in seeing things as they are.
Slipping Away imparts a similar clarity of vision musically. Hillsburn paired up with Grammy-nominated producer Howard Redekopp (who’s worked with Tegan and Sara, Mother Mother, and The New Pornographers, among others) to make the album, drawing on his extensive experience to craft their most refined effort to date. While Slipping Away retains the energy and urgency of their earlier work, there is a new sense of restraint here — the musical contrasts are slightly more subdued, the stylistic focus a little tighter. And, despite Aarntzen leaving the band before the album’s release, the group’s identity is seemingly more defined now with front-person Rosanna Burrill singing lead on all tracks, a noticeable shift from previous records.
There are familiar elements on Slipping Away — Aarntzen, Burrill, and brother Clayton Burrill’s boisterous gang vocals, or the hooky repeating chorus of lead single ‘Waking Up’ — but they mix with new flavours. Drummer Clare Macdonald channels The National’s Bryan Devendorf at times, Aarntzen moves from guitar to bass, and the often lo-fi vibe of Jackson Fairfax-Perry’s piano parts forms a consistent thread.
‘Husha’ is probably the standout track. The arrangement is careful and haunting. But the lyrics take pride of place, tracing the story of a couple visiting the narrator’s hometown while in the death throes of their relationship. The town could be any forgotten corner of post-industrial North America, and the song perfectly captures the nostalgia and feeling of uprootedness that accompany economic decline and displacement. If the story was apt before, it seems particularly resonant now that the pandemic has punctured our collective sense of security.
And yet, in a precarious moment like this there is opportunity for renewal. As the world we know is increasingly called into question, we are increasingly called to question the world we know. ‘Die With You,’ the album opener, exhorts us to trust this instinct, to get ‘[o]ut in the street now to dream and shout.’ Perhaps on the other side of all of this is a world where chance and circumstance — a virus, a lost job, the place we’re born — won’t any longer have the last word.
Slipping Away is set for release in spring 2021.
Hillsburn // Jackson Fairfax-Perry, Clare Macdonald, Clayton Burrill, Rosanna Burrill