The Winter of Our Discotheque is Michael C. Duguay’s way of reclaiming his lost identity and owning his talent and craft.
If it feels like The Winter of Our Discotheque is packed with enough pathos and drama to fill six seasons of a Ryan Murphy-produced series, that’s because Michael C. Duguay has lived enough life to fill sixty seasons worth of TV scripts. The songs themselves come from scraps and sketches Duguay’s collected over the last ten years — a period in his life when he went from the highs of being a touring musician to the lows of battling mental illness and substance dependency in between hospitalizations and stretches of homelessness. By his own admission, Duguay basically disappeared from the Canadian music scene between his 2012 solo debut Heavy on the Glory and his return to performing in 2018: “I experienced a relative amount of loss over the course of a few disastrous years, not the least of which was a sort of loss of identity, including but not limited to my identity as an artist and musician.” As he tells it, it was a night out at a Jeff Tweedy concert with his friend (and former Evening Hymns bandmate) Jonas Bonnetta where Duguay began to comprehend that all his searching for a sense of identity and purpose had him circling back to the very life he thought he’d lost and left behind.
As harrowing and personal a story as Duguay’s journey has been, he’s not in the least bit sheepish or cryptic about it; the triumphant opener “One Million More” gives away the ending right off the top. At more than seven minutes of music, its tale of dependency, despondency, sobriety, and self-realization is the epitome of epic and a pitch-perfect study in what Duguay calls his “Southern Ontario Gothic” style. “One Million More” is a classic example of an opening song that feels like it’s an entire album in and of itself; that it rumbles right into the swaggering countrified ballad (and early single) “Summer Fights” feels as right as rain. In a single, self-deprecating line, Duguay sets up the album’s premise: “This tragedy’s defined by the absurd amount of time that I have wasted.” On the page, those words may appear to be eliciting sympathy, but Duguay delivers them from the point of view of someone at a distance from his past: far enough away to allow some perspective, but still close enough for the emotions to resonate through the slightest quiver in his voice. Those same teetering vocals inform his rapid-fire delivery in “Twenty-five to Life”, a rollicking tale of the personal relationship between two people who meet in a halfway house. It’s almost as if Duguay is fighting back tears in an effort to get all the words out before succumbing to his own internal emotional world. I would love to buy the guy a coffee and sit down and have him tell me about the story behind the song some time.
Duguay’s literary songwriting style and poetic turns of phrase are at the crux of what makes The Winter of Our Discotheque such a compelling and captivating record. Sure, it’s a cliché to say that every song tells a story, but not every songwriter can tell a story the way Duguay can. The brilliant cheekiness of the album’s Shakespeare-Steinbeck cross-referencing title has a story in itself: “The discotheque imagery in my title refers directly to the winter that I worked as a manager and DJ at a nightclub in Peterborough,” he told Ottawa Shobox in 2018, “I can really pinpoint [that period] as the time that I turned myself pretty willingly down the wrong path in life… where I began to abandon music as a composer and performer while maintaining at least outwardly that I was in control and knew what I was doing.” I laughed out loud the first time I saw that title; now, after hearing its meaning, I choke back tears every time I read it. In essence, The Winter of Our Discotheque is Duguay’s way of reclaiming his lost identity and owning his talent and craft. It’s a talent to behold, as is his brow now bound with victorious wreaths.