A Flower That Wouldn’t Bloom is an exhilarating cap on an unfathomable decade of music from Daniel Romano.
Daniel Romano is a freak. A monster. Some sort of messianic alien. The rate at which he writes and releases songs is hard to wrap my head around and it’s beginning to feel a bit unreal to me. Over the course of this decade, Romano’s music has been one of the most consistent sources of pleasure in my life. I missed the country years, because it took some time to understand why anyone would shelf Attack in Black for any reason, but once I heard If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ I was fully invested in all that came before and whatever came next. I’ve been so satisfied by the man’s albums that now, when one is set to drop, there is a weight I feel. I think it’s anticipation that this will be the end. That this new set of songs will be the one that makes me lose interest, the one that diminishes the rest. It feels impossible that a human being can be this good. It must be. And yet …
A Flower That Wouldn’t Bloom, is the third album Romano has released under the Ancient Shapes moniker in as many years and it is the first that stands as tall as the masterworks that litter his solo discography. It is a startling display of musical engineering. Guitar chords ping, pong, and play off each other. Drum fills rush by, do a lap, and rush by again. There is a new hook or clever lyrical turn every twenty seconds. There is at least one song partially about shoes. It’s dizzying, exhilarating and fun — a welcome change on the heels of Finally Free.
Fun seems to be a key element in Romano’s world at the moment. If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing Daniel Romano and his touring band The Outfit over the past year, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that the man who once pushed away his punk rock roots for Nudie suits and country ballads has come back around to the electric energy that originally defined him. He rips through tunes from his country period with newfound enthusiasm and volume. The Outfit injects the weirdo folk-rock of Mosey and Modern Pressure with an urgency that is more often implied on record than actually heard. It’s perhaps telling that most of Finally Free’s songs are omitted from the Outfit’s repertoire.
It’s worth noting that The Outfit (more or less) is Ancient Shapes. And Ancient Shapes is, ostensibly, a band. There are five people in the promo photo, on the posters, on stage, but on record, it’s just Romano. Typical. But just because his fellow Shapes — David Nardi, Vee Bell, Roddy Rosetti, and Ian Romano — don’t play a single note on the record doesn’t mean they aren’t embedded in its DNA. Recorded over two sessions a year apart, this collection feels like the first of the Ancient Shapes trilogy that is not just a way for Romano to scratch his own itch. These are songs his bandmates can be proud of, challenged, and invigorated by in a live setting.
But if Romano is Ancient Shapes and Ancient Shapes is The Outfit, why isn’t this just a proper Romano record? In a way, it seems like the wall Romano put up between his solo work and Ancient Shapes (which, is also his solo work) is crumbling, which is an extremely exciting prospect. If there is a difference, the lyrics, for one thing, are less difficult to parse, especially when compared to Finally Free. You get a sense of what these songs are about on the first pass. This is not to say the lyrics are weak — far from it — they just play within a different tradition than some of the more cryptic passages on the last few solo records. Tempo may be a consideration, but stand out tracks like “Dirty Little Hands” and “To Be Touched” don’t feel too far removed from tracks like “When I Learned Your Name” or “Ugly Human Heart” from Modern Pressure. Perhaps Romano is using Ancient Shapes as a way to write about, critique, and assess himself and the way he takes up space in the world from an “outside” perspective. He laments his bad attitude, dissects his needs, addresses his vanity, isolation, optimism, his privilege, and his romantic impulses. In a way, this is as open as Romano has been about himself since If I’ve Only One Time Askin’. I don’t think it’s a coincidence it was also the last time he fancied himself a cowboy.
A Flower That Wouldn’t Bloom is the perfect way for Romano to close out an unfathomable decade of quality artistic output. I’m tempted to say it wraps up one of the greatest and most prolific musical runs by any Canadian artist ever, however I’m not yet convinced the run is done. It might never be done. Here’s hoping. By ending the decade with this little comet of an album, Romano has come full circle, even though he usually operates strictly linearly. The transformations he has undergone over the last decade would be staggering over the course of a lifetime, but Romano has proven once again that all that matters, more than who you are or what shoes you’re wearing, is that the songs are as good as possible. If A Flower That Wouldn’t Bloom is the last Daniel Romano record that wows me, I would be ok with that. What’s next for Romano is anyone’s guess, but until then, I’ll keep relishing in these songs and waiting nervously for this to end.