EMI, 2009

I don’t know Paul Dempsey. In fact, I don’t even know that much about him, other than what I can glean from this record and the hardly reliable Wikiverse (which claims he’s married, plays in the band Something for Kate, and has perfect pitch). But, unqualified as I am to make any sort of statement regarding Mr. Dempsey’s character, I would bet a fair sum he’s something of a perfectionist.

Everything about Everything is True, Dempsey’s first album under his own name, is precise. It’s pristinely produced: thought was clearly given to every sound, tone, and timbre. The arrangements are democratic, with no instrument dominating or falling behind the rest. But, remarkably, Dempsey has kept this hi-fi indulgence from producing something mechanical. Like Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Dempsey knows when to keep it tight and when to let a stray sound in (see the last four seconds of “Ramona Was A Waitress”).

The lyrics, too, are intricately constructed. Each line flows elegantly into the next, a poetic spider web. “I’m just a name in a black book attached to a face/At the back of your memory’s window display,” Dempsey sings on “Fast Friends.” I never could have predicted where that line was going, and whatever I’d guessed, it wouldn’t have been half as pretty. Despite the vivid images, it’s generally impossible to know exactly what Dempsey’s talking about, but he’s so earnest it doesn’t really matter. The situation may be hazy, but the feeling is clear, and this makes the vagueness work. Take this line: “I know no quicker way, dear/To the shiny gates of Hell/Than a room full of handsome devils/Comparing everything to everything else.” That sentiment, to me, is perfectly clear, even though the people I’m thinking of probably aren’t the ones Dempsey was writing about. I don’t think it matters. The songs’ thoughts and themes are universal and beautifully stated, which is more than enough.

The record’s mood is painfully specific, but difficult to describe. Perhaps “hesitantly mournful.” It’s powerful, but difficult to take for forty-five minutes, which is the only thing stopping the album from being a great listen start-to-finish. There’s some relief, like the pop-punk jubilance of “The Great Optimist,” but the album gets weighted down in the middle, not by bad songs, but by heavy melancholy. But each taken on its own, there’s not a bad song on here, and that’s some feat.

Unlike the tone, the sound is impressively varied. Dempsey’s default setting is colourful, arty acoustic pop, somewhere between John Vanderslice’s Emerald City and Kevin Drew’s Spirit If…. He dances around the edges of that genre a lot, though: “Out The Airlock” is a looping folk ballad, and “Take Us To Your Leader” sounds remarkably like Ryan Adams circa Heartbreaker.

Paul Dempsey’s music isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly for a lot of people. Even the harshest critics would be hard-pressed not to find something they liked, some flare of production or sharp turn of phrase. And Dempsey’s voice — world-worn and achingly resilient — is a thing from the roots of rock music, hardly original, but as appealing today as it was decades ago. It’s the kind of album that’s hard to recommend to fans of a certain genre, because it defines itself not by the type of music it is, but the nature of the songs themselves. So, hey, give it a shot.