What’s most enduring about Swan Lake’s Enemy Mine is the abiding sense of collaboration and cooperation between the band’s three songwriters.
In the dog days of June at the tail-end of the school year, our teachers used to congregate a couple of classes together in the coolness of the library to watch rented movies on the school’s new VCR player. It was a lame attempt to keep us engaged and fill in time once report cards were handed out and the year was effectively done, made even lamer by the choice of films. I remember seeing 1985’s Enemy Mine in such a setting. It’s a sci-fi drama about an earthling and his alien enemy being stranded together on a desolate planet, who eventually forge a bond that surpasses their shared hatred of each other’s “otherness”. It’s a promising premise, but for a room full of 12- and 13-year-olds with a penchant for coming-of-age comedies and daydreaming about the upcoming summer holidays, Enemy Mine was anything but engaging.
Similarly, it’s easy to see how the premise behind Swan Lake — Destroyer/New Pornographer Dan Bejar, Spencer Krug (at the time working in/as both Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown), and Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes and Blackout Beach — might not be to everyone’s musical taste. Individually, the three songwriters lean towards enigmatic, less-than-linear songwriting. Collectively under a singular moniker, the sheer weight of their complex writing style, angular singing voices, and unorthodox storytelling could be enough to make even the most erudite music fan disengage. 2006’s Beast Moans was an early-naughts music fan’s wet dream: a frenetic, multi-layered, hipster circle jerk that was one Arcade Fire member away from being a full-out indie-rock orgy of ideas and sounds. Though I’m doing everything in my power not to use the convoluted s-word, it’s hard not imagining Swan Lake as a league of musically well-endowed heroes come to save us from verse-verse-chorus-verse mediocrity.
Between Beast Moans and 2009’s Enemy Mine, Destroyer released Trouble In Dreams and Bejar contributed my favourite New Pornographers song to 2007’s Challengers; Wolf Parade dropped At Mount Zoomer and Sunset Rubdown Random Spirit Lover, while Krug also introduced the world to Moonface; Mercer was praised for 2007’s Tears of the Valedictorian and was in the thick of working on the Polaris Music Prize-longlisted Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph. What could these three songwriters possibly have left in the tank for a Swan Lake follow-up record? A freakin’ lot it turns out.
Essentially a grab-bag of unreleased tracks from the trio’s “other” projects, Enemy Mine is a remarkably balanced affair. It’s almost sickeningly democratic: Mercer, Bejar, and Krug each contribute three songs total, divided into three groups of three with one contribution from each writer in each group; sequenced so that no songwriter has two tracks back-to-back. Regardless, Enemy Mine plays like an album conceived in one sitting. The opening triptych, Mercer’s “Spanish Gold, 2044”, Krug’s “Paper Lace”, and “Heartswarm” from Bejar, all feature decidedly simple, stripped back arrangements that let their melodies shine through. Enemy Mine’s opening set of songs are a stark contrast to Beast Moans’s more cacophonous, discordant conceits. Both “Paper Lace” and “Heartswarm” bristle with a prettiness fans who hadn’t yet heard Destroyer’s Kaputt or Moonface’s Julia With Blue Jeans On would not have been expecting.
What’s most enduring about Enemy Mine after a decade is not the insight it offered into the future work of its three songwriters, but the abiding sense of collaboration and cooperation its nine songs encompass. Swan Lake set about building an ecosystem in which the blustery blast of Krug’s “Settle on Your Skin”, Mercer’s psychedelically indulgent “Warlock Psychologist”, and the alternate universe minstrel quality of Bejar’s “Ballad Of A Swan Lake, Or, Daniel’s Song” not only get along harmoniously but benefit from their proximity to one another. Enemy Mine makes good on the promising premise that three of modern music’s most idiosyncratic songwriters could form a symbiotic relationship that would simultaneously be greater than the sum of its parts while referencing, retaining, and reinforcing Bejar, Mercer, and Krug’s individual contributions.