Saint Maybe is a life and death album born out of struggle and strife that celebrates and honours all the work Michael C. Duguay put in just to be here.
In a recent email exchange with songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Michael C. Duguay, he recounted a conversation with an acquaintance who referred to his music as “DOMINIONATED-core.” I’m humoured, flattered, and maybe a little appalled at the thought of such a thing as DOMINIONATED-core actually existing. Still, I have to agree that the descriptor makes a certain amount of sense. It’s not because Dugauy’s wordy and witty folk styling fits into a favoured genre and sound, but rather that Duguay’s honesty and vulnerability imbue his work with an unabashed authenticity that makes me want to lean in and listen to every word he sings. That compelling quality prompted my open invitation to grab a coffee with him when I wrote about his last album, The Winter of Our Discotheque. We had planned on doing just that last December when he was passing through my neck of the woods touring with Steven Lambke, but an unexpected illness scuttled our get-together.
I’m not sure what my composure would have been like if that coffee date had gone ahead, to be honest. I already knew that Discotheque’s follow-up, Saint Maybe, was on its way, and not only had I heard the album, but I had also made a spoken-word contribution buried somewhere within the mix of “The Watch That Ends The Night.” I’m always nervous and introverted around people whose art and work I admire. I would not have wanted to come off as awkward and self-conscious with Duguay, whose experiences with mental illness, homelessness, and dependency over a decade brought him to the brink and back. He deserves better than a bumbling fan who can’t find the words for a simple chat over a cup of joe.
Michael C. Duguay reclaims his identity and owns his talent on The Winter of Our Discotheque.
Spoiler alert: I find it much easier to express myself in writing than in conversation (although I’m sure some would suggest otherwise). So while pondering our missed connection and immersing myself into Saint Maybe over the last few months, I’ve come to think that perhaps it’s the same for Duguay; that it’s easier — safer, you might say — for him to chronicle his experiences in song than to sit across from someone and bare his soul. That would explain the facility and forthrightness that marks Saint Maybe’s diary-like candour and superlative songwriting.
Duguay wrote half of Saint Maybe after a relapse between recording and releasing Discotheque. Faced with the choice between using or recovering, Duguay doubled down on music as his lifeline. He headed out to Whitehorse, Yukon, where a good portion of Saint Maybe took shape with input and support from his friend and collaborator Rob Dickson (hello, DOMINIONATED-core!). It’s a study of dichotomies exploring what it means to be in the throes of addiction and what it feels like to be an outsider looking in. The gutwrenchingly beautiful “Handle With Care” speaks plainly of good times that, with hindsight, don’t hold a candle to the life and relationship he has in the present. “Every time that song reaches its chorus / It still takes me by surprise,” he sings, adding, “I’m still floored by your falsetto / I can’t help but harmonize.” Still, there’s a sense that Duguay recognizes he’s on a razor’s edge, as in the equally elegant and atmospheric “Ain’t Apathetic.”
Both songs speak to Duguay’s singer-songwriter abilities while leaning into his experimental and ambient side (as featured on his biweekly internet radio show, Electric Rabbit, on Frozen Section Radio). Saint Maybe is balanced by lighters-in-the-air anthems like its blindingly brilliant title track, the aforementioned rag-tag sing-along “The Watch That Ends The Night,” and surprisingly affecting punk-powered deep cut “Love is a Number.” While stylistically bouncing around the musical spectrum, what connects and ultimately binds these songs as a singular entity is Duguay’s vocals. His lyrics are packed with so many words sometimes that it feels like he’s about to run out of breath before getting halfway through his thought. Like Rufus Wainwright, another heart-on-sleeve troubadour, there’s a cry to Duguay’s tone that, once I hear it, keeps tugging on my heart well after the song fades out.
Is Michael C. Duguay the patron saint of DOMINIONATED-core? I don’t think it’s fair to single out any one soul for that, but he’s the embodiment of the kinds of artists we have gravitated toward over our seven-plus years as a music site. Earnest, authentic, and unencumbered by expectations and analytics, Saint Maybe is, at its core, a life-and-death album born out of struggle and strife that celebrates and honours all the work Duguay put in just to be here. I still owe him that coffee, but that will never repay him for the gift he’s bestowed all of us with Saint Maybe.