Beautifully dramatic and upbeat as most of Wintersleep’s just-released In the Land Of is from a sonic perspective, the Halifax indie-rock vets aren’t afraid to deal with some heavy topics. Looking at things from a widescreen approach, the idea of feeling out of place in a rapidly changing, white-noise-filled world is a recurring theme—see the lush electro-alternative number “Waves”, in which frontman Paul Murphy sings “Maybe I’ll move to the countryside/That little French town I’ve had in my mind’s eye.” Chalk up that feeling of displacement, and the longing that goes with it, partly to the singer-guitarist’s recent move back to the East Coast after a decade or so in the DIY mecca of Montreal.
Wintersleep also deals in specifics on In the Land Of, most noticeably on “Beneficiary” and “Never Let You Go”, the former dealing with Canada’s treatment of its First Nations communities and the latter ruminating on the way our oceans have become polluted by tons upon tons of floating plastic garbage.
What’s striking about both numbers is that they are anything but dour and dirgelike, with “Beneficiary” a bright-eyed exercise in anthemic folk-rock and “Never Let You Go” working a joyous acoustic-pop groove.
That Wintersleep seems more interested in uplifting fans while hopefully giving them something to think about isn’t an accident.
“It’s funny—I just had to write out the lyrics for ‘Never Let You Go’ for our website because it’s being released as a single,” Murphy says from his Halifax home. “I was thinking ‘Man, that’s a pretty dark song.’ But there’s also a hopeful feeling. I think both those songs are about the way that you treat the world, and also about reflecting on how we can do things better.”
If Wintersleep was aware of anything during the making of In the Land Of, it was that people were watching the band and waiting for a new record. The group started out nearly two decades ago, playing sometimes-meditative indie rock at a time when the White Stripes, Strokes, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs were spearheading a North American rawk revival. Over the years, Murphy and his bandmates—who today include drummer Loel Campbell, guitarist Tim D’Eon, keyboardist Jon Samuel, and bassist Chris Bell—have ridden out countless pop-music palace revolutions while building a devoted base of fans.
What made In the Land Of important was that the goalposts shifted somewhat for Wintersleep after the release of 2016’s The Great Detachment. That album spawned a number-one hit with “Amerika”, a whip-smart gang-chant rocker that suggested the U.S.A. was in for an ugly ride thanks to the rise of a certain Donald J. Trump.
“Over the past couple of years it’s felt like people who maybe haven’t heard of us before are coming to the shows,” Murphy acknowledges. “There are definitely people that know that record the most, which is funny because, for us, we’d think it would be Welcome to the Night Sky, which we relased in 2007 and has been a real cornerstone of our band.”
Murphy and his bandmates’ primary aim was making sure they liked what they came up with for In the Land Of.
“Mostly we want to put together something that’s interesting both musically and lyrically,” he says. “If something happens after that, that’s great. But really it’s more about the process. Luckily, most people look at our band through a wider lens rather than the few songs that we end up submitting as singles.”
Wintersleep plays the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (April 26).