Hard Drugs crafts a potent love letter with Party Foreverer
Considering what came before it, one can be forgiven for overanalyzing Hard Drugs’ stellar sophomore release, Party Foreverer. The temptation is to look at the full-length as a concept record, something the Vancouver band pulled off stunningly with its eponymous 2009 debut. After all, the songs don’t lack connecting threads, the strongest ones being love, devotion, and commitment.
Those themes are, of course, familiar territory for anyone who’s ever picked up a guitar. And that gives Party Foreverer a universal feel. Still, the record is also intensely personal to Hard Drugs singer-songwriter and chief architect Jeffry Lee, but we’ll come back to that in a bit.
As those who were lucky enough to hear Hard Drugs will confirm, that album’s songs trafficked in gritty specifics, making the record a modern-day rock opera set against the backdrop of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, with the extended tale chronicling the lives of fictional addicts Lloyd and Aline. Lee pulled things off so convincingly that the songs played out as highly detailed stories set to music.
On record, it worked wonderfully. On-stage, however, the singer and his bandmate-wife Jenni Lee Nelson eventually began to feel like they’d painted themselves into a corner.
“When we were playing the first album, it was rad at first to think of it as this dramatic presentation that we were doing,” Lee Nelson says candidly, interviewed with her other half over breakfast at the Salty Tongue in Gastown. “But after a while, it sorta started to feel like we were in musical theatre. It feels really good now to be playing songs that are just songs, and being a band that’s trying to make really nice harmonies and music together, rather than trying to convey a story.”
In many ways, Lee sees Party Foreverer as a more honest record than its predecessor, jokingly suggesting that there’s a good reason why Hard Drugs didn’t knock, say, Nickelback, Hedley, or Katy Perry off the Billboard charts.
“The main difference between the first record and the second record is that the first one was, of course, completely a construct,” he says. “I mean, you write what you know, which is maybe where it [Hard Drugs] failed: because I’m not a drug addict, and my wife is not a prostitute. Why I didn’t want to present this record as another straight-up rock opera is because it is so personal.”
Besides, he adds, those who check out the record will have no trouble connecting the dots.
“The theme of love is recurring,” Lee notes. “I wouldn’t be too surprised if it comes up in every song. So it’s not like I avoided trying to make another concept album. But I guess it is. If you look at the book, the book isn’t in completely chronological order, but it’s a book, so if you’re going through it page by page, you’re reading things into it, and making up a story as you go along. You can’t help that—it’s the natural process of reading a book.”
The book of which he speaks is Party Foreverer, the one that he’s written and illustrated in black-and-white as a companion piece to the album. Like the record, it pays tribute to important connections that he’s made, some personal, some business-related, some casual, and many during his time in NYC. His Raymond Pettibon–like drawings capture everything from lost nights at Big Apple dive bars to idyllic weekends in the outlying country. They also help convey the strong bond that he’s lucky to have with Lee Nelson, who he’s been with for a decade.
“For us, we do have an unusually close relationship,” Lee reveals. “Both Jenni and I come from very tight-knit families, so we have that aspect to our personalities.”
Laughing, Lee Nelson jumps in: “What he’s trying to say is that we are hopelessly codependent.”
Given that reality, it’s easy to see how the couple being split apart, geographically speaking, in 2008 would come to inspire Party Foreverer. Recognizing that she was onto something as a clothing designer, Lee Nelson relocated to New York, the plan being that she would be followed by her husband, who remained in Vancouver. Even though they’d fly back and forth for short visits, the two would spend months living apart, which probably goes a long way to explaining the sense of longing that colours Party Foreverer.
“It was the most frustrating time in the 10 years that we’ve been together,” Lee reveals. “It wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t open to it, but it happened so fast that it caught me off-guard.”
Noting that New York is a place that makes you pick up your game as a creative person, Lee Nelson picks things up: “It ended up being a fantastic experience, but I think that Jeff in some way felt like I was choosing my job over him. But I knew all along that we’d be together in New York, and that he’d get super-inspired and make an awesome record.”
That premonition came to be, with both Party Foreverer and the book serving as an artistically pure, Hipstamatic-cool snapshot of the couple’s time in NYC. From a musical standpoint, Lee (who recorded with New York backing musicians) once again proves himself a skilled alchemist, delivering a gold-standard mix of whip-smart indie rock, gun-smoke Americana, and paint-stripping folk. Lyrically, Hard Drugs arrives bursting with optimism on the guitar-flared, made-for-singing-along rocker “Hit the Ground Runnin’ ”, and makes a good case that sometimes big-city living can get to be too much with the honky-tonk heaven of “I Wanna Move to the Country”.
Anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship will find no shortage of material to relate to, whether it’s the longing that goes on in the brilliantly Band-like “Hardest Part II” or the self-explanatory “She’s Hot But I’m Married”, which was inspired by the kind of dream that—no matter how stable a relationship—no one wants to wake up from.
Except maybe, that is, Lee and Lee Nelson, who, with a bit of gentle prodding, are happy to relate how they came to be a couple. Funnily, considering how long it’s lasted, it wasn’t one of those cases where it was love at first sight.
“Jeff was dating this girl,” Lee Nelson relates, “and I went up to them, super-drunk at a party, and said, ‘When you break up with your girlfriend, call me.’ And he said, ‘I don’t think so’, because he’s a very honourable man. So he didn’t like me for a number of years, even though I was working the door at the Pic and the Brickyard and letting him in for free because he was cute.”
Except, one day, Lee obviously changed his mind. And if you want to know what happened from there, check out Party Foreverer, which, concept album or not, chronicles a kind of love we should all be so blessed to experience.
Hard Drugs plays a Party Foreverer album-release show at the Interurban Gallery on Saturday (June 16).
Hard Drugs meets the Georgia Straight. And it's magical.