If you listen to just one song today, make it “The Lakes of Canada” by The Innocence Mission (1999, from the album Birds of My Neighborhood)
After the success of their 1995 album Glow, it took the Innocence Mission four years to release their next album. Then again, there was also a four year gap between Umbrella (1991)and Glow. I guess their label was extraordinarily patient with them.
Birds of My Neighborhood is not nearly as college-radio friendly as their three previous records, and it has a very different feel to it. It’s much more folk than rock. Apart from that, it’s heavier, emotionally. They also parted ways with their drummer and didn’t bother to replace him for this record. As a result, only one song on the album has drums, and those are pretty sparse. You don’t really notice the absence of drums, though.
This song is Karen Peris at her finest. Wonderfully written. Simple and complex at the same time. I love that it’s acoustic. I love the doubled vocals in the chorus. It’s really peaceful, and yet it evokes some sadness at the same time.
I don’t know whether “rowing on the lakes of Canada” is supposed to represent some spiritual journey. I don’t know if she’s rowing to get away from the “laughing man”, who told her that “it” couldn’t be done. Whatever “it” is. I don’t know if it’s supposed to represent some sort of escape from the real world. I don’t know if it’s supposed to represent anything at all.
Sufjan Stevens, who famously covered this song in breathtaking fashion, had a lot to say about the song.
(The) Lakes of Canada’ creates an environment both terrifying and familiar using sensory language: incandescent bulbs and rowboats are made palpable by careful rhythms, unobtrusive rhyme schemes, and specificity of language. What is so remarkable about Karen Peris’ lyrics are the economy of words, concrete nouns – fish, flashlight, laughing man – which come to life with melodies that dance around the scale like sea creatures. Panic and joy, a terrible sense of awe, the dark indentations of memory all come together at once, accompanied by the joyful strum of an acoustic guitar. This is a song in which everyday objects begin to have tremendous meaning.
Unobtrusive rhyme schemes? Sea creatures? Okay.
After Sufjan’s cover (in 2007) gave this song more attention than it had ever gotten on its own, thousands of young girls (mostly girls, anyway) posted to youtube their own covers of the song. On guitar, on banjo, on ukelele. You name it. Most of these girls can neither sing nor play their instrument. I’ve watched a lot of them. I mean A LOT of them. They’re mostly painfully bad.
Here’s one cover that I think is quite good. And it showed up before Sufjan made it famous.
For a few years, this album was out of print. Thankfully, Mark Kozelek’s label, Badman Records, has remastered and reissued this album, which you can buy here.