With their 2011 third album,Young Galaxy not only rewrote their own set of musical rules, but created a whole new game for themselves.
In his 2020 memoir, Remain in Love, Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz describes the band’s symbiotic collaboration with producer Brian Eno on their third album, 1979’s Fear of Music. Set up in Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth’s Long Island City loft/rehearsal space, the band played the songs into mics and wires that ran out the window and down to a mobile recording vehicle on the street below, where Eno and studio engineers sat putting it all onto tape. The result is an album that many regard as a massive evolutionary leap for the landmark New Wave band and a timeless example of artist-producer synergy in action.
About thirty years later, Young Galaxy followed a similar creative path with their third album, 2011’s Shapeshifting. As its name implies, Shapeshifting is a musical transformation that found the Montreal-based band (then a trio of primary members Catherine McCandless and Stephen Ramsay with bassist Stephen Kamp) shedding the psychedelic and shoegaze tags of their first two records. Shapeshifting marked Young Galaxy’s maiden voyage with Swedish producer Dan Lissvik (of electro-pop duo Studio). Lissvik served as Young Galaxy’s Eno-surrogate, providing his production skills on the raw music the band recorded in Montreal and wirelessly transmitted across the ocean to him in Gothenburg. Young Galaxy and Lissvik were never in the same room together for Shapeshifting, but the band and the producer proved to be an undeniably simpatico pairing.
Lissvik’s input is evident from the onset. After the short intro, “Nth,” serves to metaphorically rewind Young Galaxy’s hazy layers of guitars, reverb and synths, “The Angels Are Surely Weeping” drops in with its slinky and seductive minimalist beats and synths. It’s a sparse yet spot-on, tone-setting track that finds Ramsay stepping up to the mic for one of his best-ever vocal performances. The song also serves as a red herring. Though musically, it’s indicative of what’s to follow, “The Angels Are Surely Weeping” masks the fact that McCandless would be assuming the lion’s share of vocal duties from there on out (eventually becoming the band’s official lead vocalist with 2013’s Ultramarine). Ramsay returns to close out Side A on “Peripheral Visionaries,” but besides the sumptuous duet “Cover Your Tracks,” Shapeshifting is McCandless’s domain, and she stakes her claim. Regardless of who is responsible for the lyrics, McCandless’s rich voice lends these songs a much-needed mythical and feminine essence that balances the album as a whole (a trait that carries over to her post-YG project, Riches).
In 2011, fans and critics alike made a sport out of trying to decipher where Lissvik’s contributions start and where the source material ends. It was a game pretty much rendered moot with the album’s Deluxe Edition, released at the end of the year and featuring the original versions of some of the songs. Still, Young Galaxy were never strangers to anthemic melodies and strutting rhythms (check “Come and See” from their 2007 self-titled debut and show-stopping “Destroyer” from 2009’s sophomore LP, Invisible Republic, for examples). Choosing Lissvik as producer suggests Young Galaxy were already travelling down a more pop-oriented road with the Swede mapping out a more direct route on the brilliant “We Have Everything” and “B.S.E.” The former is movement-inducing, infectiously dancey and finds Young Galaxy surprisingly comfortable while sounding that ecstatic. The latter track is more pop than bop, but in hindsight, it’s not “B.S.E.”’s music that resonates so much as its words. “You and I / We mess up and survive,” sings McCandless off the top, possibly speaking directly to her musical and life-partner Ramsay, “When we feel like we’re falling / Let’s dive.” And dive they do, “intoxicated by reinvention [and] transformation,” “B.S.E” is as much a sparkling pop song as it is a rebuke to those who had written Young Galaxy off in 2011: their one-time label Arts & Crafts who let the band go after one album; those who passed on picking up 2009’s Polaris Music Prize longlisted Invisible Republic; and anyone who dismissed them as just another “stagnant indie rock band out of Montreal.”
Shapeshifting is anything but stagnant, as exemplified by its subtle yet moving title track. With the album’s closing number, the production conceit gets turned on its head, suggesting that Lissvik’s contributions were not limited to additions but included omissions, as well (of the examples made available through the aforementioned deluxe edition, it is by far the song most transformed from its original version). By muting its metronomic rhythm until the last possible moment, listeners get a glimpse into an alternate reality where Shapeshifting was less synth and more spiritual. As the lush string-infused mid-tempo number takes form, it’s evident that Young Galaxy weren’t interested in playing by any industry rulebook. By being both fearless creators and risk-takers willing to turn their music over to Lissvik for his input and contribution, Young Galaxy not only wrote their own set of rules with Shapeshifting but also created a whole new game for themselves.