On Face Control, Handsome Furs approached the world like they approached music: as an army of two battling unseen, Cold-War-era-like foes and fears.
If Wikipedia is to be believed, “Temptation”, New Order’s fourth single, has the distinction of being the most played live song in the band’s canon. From Bernard Sumner’s snowball-down-the-shirt-induced yelp in the 12” vocal take to its iconic use in Trainspotting, “Temptation” is the transformative moment when New Order pivoted from Joy Division’s stark art-punk aesthetic to become one of the 80s favourite dance-floor filler. I’ve never met a New Order fan who doesn’t hold “Temptation” in the highest regard. It is, in a word, sacrosanct.
But not above reinterpretation and reinvention. “Temptation” is among the legendary Manchester band’s most frequently covered songs (thanks again, Wikipedia). It is a banger, after all. Though initially, it seems like a bold move for Handsome Furs to build “All We Want, Baby, Is Everything” from the foundational elements of New Order’s song, it feels natural to the point that, for many, the two songs’ connections were not immediately evident. “All We Want, Baby, Is Everything” was never an official single from Handsome Furs’s sophomore album, Face Control, but it’s still an alchemic moment on the sterling, transformative album where, like New Order did with “Temptation”, Handsome Furs transformed from a Wolf Parade side-project into a viable and vital act in its own right.
Dan Boeckner and then-partner Alexei Perry’s first, tentative steps as Handsome Furs was 2007’s Plague Park, an surprisingly affecting record built from the barest of bones; a modern record pining for simpler times. It sounded like it was recorded in the dead of a Montreal winter (it was) by a pair of fearful romantics burning to break free of a cloistered consciousness that seemed to be bubbling up in North America. The internet made us a global village, but we seemed more concerned with telling friends what we were doing/thinking on Facebook to care very much about what was going on in the rest of the world. We were deep enough into the War on Terror and far enough removed from 9-11 to become complacent once again. Chances were looking pretty good that either the first woman or black U.S. president was going to be elected in the next year. Boeckner and Perry weren’t drinking the Kool-Aid or wearing the rose-coloured glasses, though. Their songs spoke of stuttering hesitancy, disenchantment, and all-around disillusionment.
Whatever tensions Plague Park carried were amplified ten-fold on its follow up, 2009’s Face Control. Now married, Boeckner and Perry approached the world like they approached music, as an army of two battling unseen, Cold-War-era-like foes and fears. Armed with Boeckner’s killer songwriting and Perry’s steely-eyed synth lines, Face Control slays. “All We Want, Baby, Is Everything” leads the charge. Boeckner’s battle-weary voice sounds defeated, deflated, but resoundingly defiant, buoyed by slick, synthetic rhythms and the song’s own signature hook. The rest of Face Control radiates out from the song’s nuclear centre like a mushroom cloud. “Legal Tender” and “Talking Hotel Arbat Blues” are bristling arty, electro-pop anthems of worry and confusion. Boeckner and Perry’s experiences travelling and playing throughout Eastern Europe inform each song, some with subtle shades (“Evangeline”) and others (like the lyrically sparse “(White City)”) more overtly.
While “Nyet Spasiba” hints at further New Order influences, musically speaking, Face Control speaks a language all of Handsome Furs’s own. Boeckner’s guitars take a backseat to Perry’s synths, appearing sparingly and as a means of punctuating and elevating the songs. Music so machine-based has a tendency to come off as cold and detached, a concept and idea hinted at by the album’s title, a reference to the post-Soviet Russian practice of admitting nightclub goers based solely on their physical appearance and attractiveness. Still, there are great nuances in Handsome Furs’s electro-based arrangements. From the odd melody line running through the last half of instrumental “Passport Kontrol” to the steady, surging build-up of “Thy Will Be Done”, Face Control is a record of human contact, ambition, and experience. If “All We Want, Baby, Is Everything” is Face Control’s heart, “Radio Kaliningrad” is its soul — a beautifully cacophonous pirate transmission from “the other side.” It does what every album’s final song is meant to do: signal how the band’s sound would evolve on their next (and last) outing, 2011’s Sound Kapital, and suggest what could have been if the band and Boeckner and Perry’s relationship had survived beyond album three.
It’s tempting to speculate and give in to the gossip and conjecture around the demise of Handsome Furs, but doing so only diminishes the impact and potency of their recorded output. Like many fellow Montreal power-couples of the time, Boeckner and Perry channelled their powerful creative chemistry into making Face Control. Regardless of the fate of the band, the music remains a lasting testament to Handsome Furs’s ideas and vision. Boeckner cited his love of the songs as the main reason he and his current band, Operators, recently played sets of Handsome Furs songs at shows in New York and Toronto. There’s hope then, that even though we’ve seen the last of Handsome Furs the band, through Boeckner’s reinterpretations and reinventions, their music will endure.