28 September (Onto Entertainment/ADA)
Chris Mansfield fancies himself a fuck-up. Through the ten songs that make up the self-titled full-length from Fences, the 27-year-old musician’s band, the singer and songwriter sings, in his resigned baritone how he just can’t seem to get it right – love, life, family – again and again. That might be right, but if Mansfield’s growing international fanbase, which includes the album’s producer Sara Quin, of Tegan and Sara, shows anything, it’s that Mansfield can do no wrong with his songs.
Most songwriters are lucky to write a single love song that truly cuts to the bone once in their lifetime. With his debut record, Mansfield has managed to write ten such songs; taught, jangling, downcast pop songs that expose the crippling pain and ineffable beauty that comes from a true kind of love. While he has only just begun his ascent to the complex virtuosity of his fellow saints of the down-and-out – Elliott Smith, Townes Van Zandt, hell, George Orwell – Mansfield has, with this album, struck out as a new, honest voice in an era of false sentimentality.
Mansfield’s musical life started in Boston where he spent his late teens studying music at the Berklee School of Music and experimenting with life and love. His first song – a short and simple three-chord strum called “Running from Pigeons” written to win back an ex girlfriend – whetted his appetite for music. He eventually got the girl back, started writing more songs and played a few house shows. At the time, that girlfriend was studying the plays of August Wilson and suggested that Mansfield name his band after the famed playwrights most beloved play, Fences.
Three years ago, with only that name, a few songs and a few bags, Mansfield moved to the Pacific Northwest with his current girlfriend to be closer to his mom and a music scene he hoped would welcome him with open arms. With some of his savings, he bought a four track. He began working, in earnest, on his music, spending hours each day working out melodies and lyrics in a small Capitol Hill studio, drawing from his musical training and his own life. “My Girl the Horse” – consisting of a simple country guitar line, a looping beat from a drum machine and Mansfield’s anxieties – came first. Many followed, until Mansfield had a full EP’s worth of songs that he would go on to title the Ultimate Puke EP. He quickly self-released the collection of raw, devastatingly beautiful recordings. The word spread and soon Fences was on the musical map in the Emerald City. With those few tunes, Mansfield worked his way onto stages with Mark Kozelek, St. Vincent and performed at prestigious PACNW festivals such as The Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival, The Capitol Hill Block Party and Sasquatch. The EP also landed in the hands of young record producer who passed it along to Canadian indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara.
Sara Quin, one half of the duo and a producer in her own right, immediately took to the music and sent Mansfield a message, beginning a long correspondence and friendship. After a year of writing back and forth, Quin asked Mansfield the question he had been hoping for: “Do you have a passport?” Within weeks, Mansfield was at Quin’s studio in Victoria, B.C., for a ten-day stint, clocking 12 hour days while recording 13 songs. Ten of those songs would become the full-length debut, Fences.
The influence of Quin is clear, though the new album is still, very much, the work of Mansfield. What was simply implied on the Ultimate Puke EP – the beauty that runs as a current underneath the down-and-out times – was made manifest in the studio with Quin. The album’s finer points – “Boys Around Here,” “Sadie,” “My Girl the Horse” – shine under the guise of her production, Mansfield’s truthful tales of woe illuminated by the beauty of pop music.
This is still tragic stuff, but man is it magnificent.