You could take Dan Boeckner for granted. In fact, you probably are taking Dan Boeckner for granted. Over the last two decades, most of us first got to know Boeckner as one of Wolf Parade’s primary songwriters, then as the leader of Handsome Furs, then as Britt Daniel’s partner-in-crime for Divine Fits, and finally as the frontman of Operators. In that time, a year has rarely passed without something new from one of those various endeavors. And it’s almost all consistently great, while still rarely nudging forward to interact with whatever indie conversation is happening at the moment. He’s off to the side, churning out albums with multiple projects back to back. Workmanlike even in his artier moments, you can always rely on him to deliver a collection of masterful hooks. He’s always there — often literally, with how much he’s committed to slugging it out on the road, and how cognizant he is of playing places most bands ignore. Artists like that, the ones you can count on time and time again without thinking about it, they don’t always get their due.
But there’s an upside within this archetype, an intimacy that develops for those listeners who do follow along for the whole ride. That reliability, as unsexy as a press narrative as it can be, pays dividends for longtime fans. You put on a new set of songs by this artist, and soon enough there’ll be that moment. The one that elicits a tiny smile, a feeling of familiarity, like you’re picking up a conversation with an old friend a year later: a matter-of-fact but pleased realization of “Oh, shit, they’re back.”
On the new Operators album, Radiant Dawn, that moment arrives approximately six minutes in. During the album’s second song, “I Feel Emotion,” Boeckner sings: “I spent days and nights in nowhere places/ But everywhere is a nowhere place it seems.” A wanderer by trade and nature, it’s a lyric that sums up a throughline of Boeckner’s writing across his different bands and projects, that “Springsteen by way of punk and a small town Canadian upbringing” vibe he’s cultivated over the years. It’s such a quintessentially Boeckner line, in fact, that he says it again in the very next song, Radiant Dawn’s lead single “Faithless.”
Being a traveler, Boeckner’s work has often picked up on places, be they the nowheres you find yourself passing through — or likelier stuck in — or the elsewheres that open up the world when you are from the sort of dead-end towns Boeckner knows too well from his youth. Especially in his synth-pop life — first in Handsome Furs, then in Operators — he has indulged his fascination with faraway places, being the outsider but trying to understand these new lands he’s passing through. Mostly this has come out of his affinity for Eastern Europe, though the final Handsome Furs album Sound Kapital did combine the aesthetic of ‘80s European music with narratives inspired by a Handsome Furs tour in Southeast Asia, amidst underground scenes hiding from the authorities.
Radiant Dawn might be the first of his albums that, while still bearing sonic markers of a European tradition, consistently sounds as if it could unfold in an imagined, fictional place. You can hear the continuations of past Furs and Operators, you can hear how he made his way to this place over time. But now Boeckner’s everyman bark is surrounded by something else. It’s music for a nightclub in a moon colony. It’s music for a retro-futuristic recreation of an Eastern Europe metropolis that never quite existed. It’s music for an encroaching dystopia.
The album also took longer than usual. Since Operators’ 2016 full-length debut Blue Wave, Boeckner reunited with Wolf Parade, yielding an EP and LP and extensive touring. In between, he was also on the road with Operators, including some one-off shows late last year in which they played sets consisting only of Handsome Furs songs. He’s been busy. But he always is, and it’s never slowed him down before. When I interviewed him in 2016, the original plan had been Wolf Parade and Operators in 2017, plus Divine Fits in 2018. In the end, we wound up waiting a little while for Phase 2 of that plan.
It’s not as if Radiant Dawn feels any more expansive than other albums in his catalog as a result; like his songwriting, Boeckner’s ambition is consistent. But you can hear the time put in to the overall sound of the album. In his earliest forays into synth music, Boeckner was scratchier, buzzier, scrappier. More primitive. He was figuring out how his voice fit in this lineage.
Radiant Dawn is not like that. Instead, it bursts forth with confidence, dancing between strange textural details and bold melodies effortlessly. Boeckner’s work has gradually become glossier over time, especially in the transition between Handsome Furs and Operators. In recent years, one would imagine Operators has also become more of a band, moving beyond the collaborators Boeckner found for his latest compositions and into an actual unit, well-oiled by hours spent touring and tinkering with synth dials. Together with Devojka and his Divine Fits bandmate Sam Brown, Boeckner’s found a modulation of Operators’ sound that makes Radiant Dawn his most pristine work yet. Every synth sound here shines, glistens.
At 14 tracks, the album seems long on paper. In reality, that tracklist is broken up with five interstitials, as Handsome Furs’ sophomore album Face Control was. They provide little segues with more experimental sounds. Warped and psychedelic, they’re like garbled transmissions as Operators shift between the clearer signals. Sometimes it’s easy to wonder what it could’ve sounded like if they’d leaned into these fully, if Boeckner had built finished songs out of these strange passages — especially “(Public Void)” and “(Object Sighting).” But that’s not who Boeckner is as a songwriter. It never has been.
While Radiant Dawn sounds quite a bit different than Blue Wave, Boeckner’s tendency for punchiness remains. In the past, the synth-based part of Boeckner’s writing could often lurch, favoring a stop-start rhythm that felt akin to an irregular heartbeat. Instead, these songs bloom, or they vibrate. Several of them are built on the kind of propulsion that instead makes one’s heart race, the kind of incessant dance music that accelerates and enlivens and somehow frees that heartbeat through robotic precision.
The result is some of his best songs in this mold. “I Feel Emotion” plays like an update on a long-lost new wave classic. “In Moderan” manages to be one of the more sneakily addictive tracks on Radiant Dawn despite its initial unpredictability. The album’s perfectly bookended with “Days” and “Low Life,” two songs that begin suggestive and soon climb to climaxes that sound triumphant despite their downtrodden themes. The best of the bunch might be “Faithless,” a song that sounds straightforward enough on first listen and becomes the most infectious of the new compositions. It also feels like a mission statement for the album sonically and thematically: Riding a steadily intensifying pulse, the song patiently piles on more ideas, growing more vivid, a highway song that concludes with whatever futuristic cityscape Radiant Dawn takes place against coming into view.
Without retreading old ground, exactly, some of those songs feel like Boeckner’s sweet spot — “I Feel Emotion” in particular is one of those tracks you imagine must’ve been hiding somewhere in his bloodstream for some time. But along the way there are chances for surprises, too, for Operators to continue to expand their sound. “Terminal Beach” is a dramatic mid-album moment, chilly and restrained verses abruptly opening up into a chorus dominated by a gorgeous cascading synth line. “Come And See” might be the biggest left-turn. Arriving late in the album, it finds Operators playing a ruminative ballad by their standards, with Boeckner channeling Jarvis Cocker in his tone and cadence.
Lyrically, “I Feel Emotion” and “Faithless” are not the only songs that share sentiments or exact wordings. Boeckner opens the whole album with a desperate, depleted scene: “Staring down the void at the bottom of a glass/ In the flood lit parking lot/ I woke up in the woods/ Far beyond the city streets/ I was singing ‘Days go by.’” Later, in “Come And See,” he continues: “I spent the day inside/ I watch the world go by.” These are recurring ideas across the album, narrators suffocated under the conditions of modern life, or suffocated under a fictionalized end-times that doesn’t seem that drastically fictionalized.
Maybe it’s a result of Boeckner’s love of Eastern Europe and his attendant references to the Soviet era, maybe it’s his sympathies for forgotten countries being stoked in an era in which so many powerful countries are flirting with fascism once again. Either way, the idea of occupations and corrupt powers watching over us and Armageddon wastelands are littered throughout Radiant Dawn. There are references to things like a “Golden Age” and a “Great Rebirth,” but perhaps most telling is the phrase “Terminal Beach,” which shares a title with a ‘60s J.G. Ballard short story depicting the psychological decline of a man in mourning, amidst nuclear wreckage and desolation.
It’s a logical place for Operators music to take place in, given their repeated turns towards dystopia and apocalypse. Radiant Dawn doesn’t exactly offer a happier ending. Boeckner’s final lyrics are “We are living/ Low/ Low life/ Until the end of days.” For us, listening to this in the bleak days of 2019, the singalong melody in which he delivers those words at least suggests that time-honored trope, that possibility of dancing through the end of the world.
Radiant Dawn isn’t really the kind of the album that’s going to sway the previously unconverted. It’s one of those albums that finds an artist who’s already proven himself, solidly still at the top of his game, trying out new sounds and ideas within the latest array of bulletproof hooks he’s amassed. For people who are invested in Boeckner’s arc through all his different projects, that won’t come as a surprise. And along the way, there are rewarding moments over and over, beyond that first lyrical flash in “I Feel Emotion.” When the beats truly kick in during “Strange” and “Low Life,” the way the frantic surge of “Despair” recalls Handsome Furs’ “Cheap Music,” the way Boeckner sings “I see glowing Dawn” before the chorus of “In Moderan” and is met with synths that sound like a desert sunrise, the way “Faithless” finally arrives at the climactic line “The dawn has risen, radiant and red” — it happens again and again on this album. You’ll find yourself smiling, repeatedly and knowingly.
Radiant Dawn is out 5/17 on Last Gang Records.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The National’s sprawling, characteristically gorgeous I Am Easy To Find.
• Carly Rae Jepsen’s long-awaited E•MO•TION follow-up, Dedicated.
• Tyler, The Creator’s as-yet-unheard Igor.
• Alex Lahey’s sharply-written sophomore outing The Best Of Luck Club.
• Spencer Radcliffe & Everyone Else’s ruminative Hot Spring.
• Institute’s scuzzy, frenetic Readjusting The Locks.
• Recent Band To Watch Injury Reserve’s self-titled art-rap debut full-length.
• Palmistry’s left-of-center dancehall pop collection Afterlife.
• Megan Thee Stallion’s debut Fever.
• The Head and The Heart’s latest coming-to-a-festival-near-you-soon outing, Living Mirage.
• Josephine Wiggs’ mostly instrumental, experimental solo debut We Fall.
• Olden Yolk’s pretty, thespian-indebted sophomore endeavor Living Theatre.
• Full Of Hell’s chaotic, pulverizing Weeping Choir.
• Ryan Pollie’s post-Los Angeles Police Department debut under his own name, Ryan Pollie.
• slowthai’s, ahem, topical new collection, Nothing Great About Britain.
• Sam Cohen’s Danger Mouse-assisted The Future’s Still Ringing In My Ears.
• NOIA’s icily atmospheric Crisàlida EP.
• Recently-minted Band To Watch Slow Pulp’s Big Day EP.
• Interpol’s A Fine Mess EP.
• Elton John Cena’s All Rats Go To Heaven EP.
• Verdigrls’ Small Moves EP.