Paul Bergman, Anthropology (independent, 2015). CD, 10 songs, $15.00. (Digital download, 10 songs, $10.00.)
It’s rare to find an epigraph from Wallace Stegner on an album sleeve, rarer still to find an artist so keen on inhabiting its sentiment. But that is Paul Bergman, a folk and roots musician from southern Manitoba who’s been quietly crafting a remarkable catalogue of songs about life on the prairies for over a decade, and whose best output feels entirely appropriate next to the words of the great naturalist writer.
Recorded over four years with help from John Paul Peters, Michael Falk and Matt Peters, Anthropology boasts an impressive list of talented contributors, but it never sounds overworked over shadowed by its production. Even the simplest songs on Anthropology feel alive, assembled with perception and poise by a songwriter as committed to his craft as he is to the prairies.
As with his previous efforts, Bergman’s songs explore themes of home and displacement, but on Anthropology he’s broadened his scope, sonically and lyrically. Writing from the small, predominantly Mennonite community of Altona, Bergman’s best songs wrestle with a static — at times stultifying — sense of place. After the album’s spare introduction, “Down a dirt road,” Bergman re-visits the colonial history of his prairie home with the epic “Creeping Charlie.” For many of the Mennonites who settled in Southern Manitoba, historical narratives of religious persecution, migration, and subsequent economic success have appeared to confirm our presence on the prairies, but Bergman sees this story a bit differently. “The soil was fertile, / they took all they could, / they thought they had God’s blessing, / they thought God was good.”
Nods to Bergman’s Mennonite surroundings are scattered throughout Anthropology, but they never fully escape his sense of irony. On “Night is falling,” Bergman’s wandering narrator finds something close to home (“a thin little dwelling ‘neath the northern stars”) before wryly observing “the high birds of heaven” that “shit on the window.” And by the end of the song, Bergman’s narrator is again on the outside, “slowly learning to say goodbye / and the choir inside sings this little light of mine.”
In the Mennonite songbook, home is always another point of departure, and for Bergman the constancy of this movement is definitive. “Home fires” sets up a rustic scene in the midst of its autumn transition, where the nights are “coming in cool / and the leaves are living the golden rule,” but swiftly dismantles it. “Burn it down, you’re just a tourist in this town,” Bergman sings, backed with vocals from Amy Loewen, as the song fades through its tender conclusion. At this point on the album, Bergman seems to be hitting his stride: the melodies are warm and the themes are beginning to resonate. But instead of continuing down that familiar path, we encounter an enigmatic figure of Albert Johnson.
Anthropology’s haunting centrepiece is also one of Bergman’s finest achievements. “Albert Johnson” is named after the infamous “Mad Trapper of Rat River,” who once served as a similar point of intrigue for writer Rudy Wiebe. In Bergman’s hands, a fluid bassline parallels Johnson’s skillful movement over the landscape, while additional layers of guitar achieve an atmosphere that brings to mind the soundscapes of producer Daniel Lanois.
For the second half of Anthropology, Bergman turns to the winter landscape for inspiration. “Sundogs” breaks through with surge of energy; “In the atmosphere” attempts to find joy in letting go; meanwhile, the narrator of “In the cellar” does just the opposite, hunkering down for the winter in a pantry full of preserves.
Bergman’s album closes wistfully with a pair of tracks about leaving home, both written in the second person. Leaving home can seem impossible, particularly in isolated communities that place a high importance on cohesion,but, as Bergman reminds his listeners, “you can always walk away.” Anthropology’s final track, “Happy trails, sad camper,” return its listeners to the beginning, to that dirt road that began the album.
Anthropology’s account of life on the prairies turns out to be quite circular, which is in keeping with the photographs used for its artwork. Both images feature parallel compositions, where one’s escape route seems determined by what surrounds it. The front cover photo looks out from the perspective of an onstage performer at a big tent revival meeting with its pious audience parted down the centre. On the back, we see another prairie scene that Bergman can’t seem to shake: a lonely road escorted into the horizon by a line of telephone poles.
Jonathan Dyck is an illustrator and writer living in Winnipeg. His writing and artwork have appeared in The Globe & Mail, the Literary Review of Canada, This Magazine and GUTS, an online feminist magazine where he is the art editor.