By Tony Montague
The title of Toronto songwriter Jon Brooks’s The Smiling and Beautiful Countryside, and the vintage print of a red fox on its cover may suggest a collection of pieces inspired by wildlife and sunny landscapes. But the scent is false. The phrase comes from Sherlock Holmes, investigating a crime, and the fifth release by Brooks is a clutch of shockingly visceral new songs whose unifying theme is murder, and whose setting is rural and small-town Canada. On closer look, the fox has a deeply unsettling stare, and its teeth protrude.
Brooks’s lyrics don’t make for easy listening. But he’s so articulate, his black humour is so pervasive, his narratives so compelling and finely-constructed, that you emerge from the darkness with a sense of wonder at the sustained audacity of his enterprise.
“I’ve made a small name as a guy who sings topical and socially relevant songs. I wanted to throw a curve-ball and lose that image. Much as I believe that a song can change people for the better, I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed that way. I’m trying to do what Cicero thought was the job of writers – to teach, inspire, and entertain. Today that order has been reversed: it’s crucial that we entertain first, then we can inspire. And if we’re lucky we can create empathy and unite people – that’s what I consider teaching, and my responsibility with a guitar and mike. I needed to do something that first of all grabbed attention. What better way than an album with a death-count of 75.”
Brooks hits hard from the start. Gun Dealer is an appropriately rapid-fire and rap-like litany of the chilling range of weapons the dealer has for sale. It’s followed by the slower-paced and reflective People Don’t Think Of Others, dealing with a husband-and-wife double suicide in a sleepy community on the Prairies, where “you could watch your dog run until lunchtime”. Brooks has a sharp eye for suggestive and ironic detail, such as “Magnetic poetry on a full fridge / gave the note a child-likeness.” And he plays expertly with emotional responses.
“I love the idea that the audience will laugh out loud at the line “He was married, that is to say he knew how to apologize” then less than a minute later there’s dead silence. That’s what we’re after as songwriters – those moments. That’s when you know you can move them to good action. There’s something indefinable, almost magical, about humour. Make an audience laugh and they will follow you down any dark alley.”
Queensville is an almost jaunty, banjo-driven tune about the mysterious killing of a young woman in Ontario, with the bleak conclusion ‘There’s a cruelty in Nature on remains and body parts / And a cruelty more violent in every human heart”. Highway 16 concerns the notorious road in northern British Columbia from which, according to Brooks, more than 400 aboriginal women have disappeared. “It’s a fictional retelling of Canada’s worst contemporary true story. I didn’t want to write some earnest tearjerker but to approach it in a way that might elicit terror, because I think people have to be moved by some degree of shock or fear. Currently the country seems to be asleep with the subject.”
The most chilling song is the 11-minute long The Only Good Thing Is An Old Dog which takes you into the warped mind of Trevor, a verbose and witty gunman who’s returned to the office from which he was “let go”, to wreak revenge on his former bosses and fellow-workers. “It’s an exercise in what I’d call comic hyperbole. When you decide to take on the theme of murder, one thing you learn fast is that there are two ways of dealing with it – understatement or overstatement. People Don’t Think Of Others is classic understatement, Old Dog the opposite.”
Oddly – but to powerful effect -Trevor’s monologue is laced with literary allusions, mainly from King Lear. “I believe Shakespeare is the father of nihilism, and Lear is the best example of this – everybody dies, the world is burned down. That’s one of Lear’s big themes, which is why I chose that for Old Dog. Trevor doesn’t have to be fully literate – he’s only half-read, an example of ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’. The intention wasn’t to show how many books I’ve read – I think of it as a compliment to my audience’s intelligence.”
One magnificently murderous song is directly based on tradition – a contemporary reworking of the classic Child Ballad The Twa Sisters. “I’ve always believed that as writers, whatever your genre, we’re never being truly original. The inclusion of The Twa Sisters is like a cue for people to realize we’re in conversation with every other song written before. I prefer performing it without any introduction which makes it all the more surprising and wondrous. One of my primary responsibilities as a songwriter is to be an agent of wonder and surprise in an age when things like Wikipedia shut down the opportunities we used to have to live in that space of unknowing. I want to take people away from the idea of knowing everything all the time – if that’s my only success in this career, I’ll be happy.”