North Star

Who is the Polaris Prize for?

The talk this summer about the 2011 Polaris Prize can be summed up by the fact that, for the first time, it bent to popular opinion. Since its inception in 2006, this annual award for best Canadian record has been administered with exuberant contrariness by juries of music bloggers, journalists and DJs, each with an ear cupped to the national underground and eager to champion the obscure. In fact, the Polaris highlights the sometimes kindred nature of music and conceptual art, showcasing it at its most unselfconscious and free; and perhaps, for mainstream listeners, its most frustrating.

Arcade Fire portrait by Anton Corbijn

Arcade Fire portrait by Anton Corbijn

Yet that’s what the mandate of the not-for-profit Polaris Music Prize organization is meant to protect: “Polaris recognizes and markets albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history.” It’s not about easy listening. It embraces rogue acts shut out of fragile major-label business models and who don’t seem to care about career advancement anyway. When Owen Pallett won the inaugural Polaris, he sank some of the $20,000 prize (now $30,000) into another band’s record before one of his own. In 2009, punk outfit Fucked Up put part of its winnings toward an unlikely recording of Do They Know it’s Christmas? to raise money for charity. These are bands that are content—or at least bound by the creative ethic—to swim beyond pop’s fringes. The Polaris isn’t meant to rescue them from that. It’s meant to shine a light on where they move.

Except in 2011. The September announcement that the prize was going to The Suburbs by Arcade Fire (passed over in 2007 for its sophomore Neon Bible) was an expected anomaly.

The Montreal band was hardly working in the fringes. It owned the 2011 Junos. Nominated for three Grammys, it took Best Album. Adding the Polaris seemed at once inevitable and counter to the prize’s tendency to nurture the underdog, an affection founder and executive director Steve Jordan denies. The award encompasses a realm of myriad possibilities, apparently, including paths of least resistance.

“Polaris is all about generating discussion,” Jordan said in an interview at Billboard.biz. It’s meant, he said, to plug people into the stunning diversity of music and bands this country produces, that’s all. “You don’t have to like them but you should pay attention to them,” Jordan has insisted.

But other than critics, who does that? As education, the Polaris has always risked undermining itself. Canada’s musical fringe needs support (it’s the only place where music is still actually evolving in this country) and thanks to the prize it now has it. But should a balance be struck? With The Suburbs Polaris judges have finally gone easy on listeners. Imagine if they loosened up just a little more, and recognized the opportunity to open up the vibrant world of the Canadian indie scene by rewarding a few more of its radio-friendly gateway bands. Pop art is for everyone, said Andy Warhol, so why not reflect upon the Polaris’ definition of “artistic integrity,” and pick alternatives, from the same place Arcade Fire has drawn the spotlight? Art doesn’t have to alienate to be great.

2006 probably saw the Polaris at its weirdest and most brilliant in picking He Poos Clouds by Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett’s former musical moniker). Heavily orchestrated, the record’s arrangements are fascinating in their complexity, but require multiple listens to decipher. Admittedly, Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton also begs patience for Knives Don’t Have Your Back, a slow, contemplative album that can sound standoffish—a quality that also pulls you in like a worried friend. Recorded after the death of her father, poet Paul Haines, the collection lacks the crunch and energy of Metric, Emily Haines’s main act, but even if it’s better suited to dreary dead-of-winter nights (opener Our Hell is the record’s most upbeat), few albums (He Poos Clouds most definitely excluded) will ever invite the empathy of listeners as beautifully as Haines’.

After Final Fantasy, Patrick Watson, 2007 winner for Close to Paradise, sounds like an olive branch proffered by a gentler, almost penitent jury. Songs have a recognizable beat, even if they rarely break from a meandering, somnambulistic amble. In contrast, Halifax’s Wintersleep cuts to the chase in a way that saw Weighty Ghost, the fourth track from the album Welcome to the Night Sky, score a beer commercial, likely putting Polaris judges off future releases. Still, Night Sky pushes the limits of Canadian guitar rock the way The Hip did with Day for Night thirteen years earlier. The existential, what-does-it-all-mean theme loosely linking tracks isn’t particularly fresh, but it’s mature enough to make these songs stand out as much-needed anthems of nostalgia for a jaded Generation X. From the fist-pumping Laser Beams to the tear-jerking Dead Letter & the Infinite Yes, Night Sky doesn’t demand that we Xers get over ourselves as much as it celebrates that we finally have. Records don’t need a point, of course, but the lack of concern for form that makes Close to Paradise interesting also puts it out of easy reach.

2008’s jury should be ashamed of itself for passing over Winnipeg’s Weakerthans, shortlisted that year. The jangly, Sixties-sounding pop of Caribou’s Andorra lacks the intelligence and nuance (not to mention fun) of Reunion Tour. John K. Samson is more poet than any rock ’n’ roll lead in Canada: few better understand the opportunity lyrics present to make music meaningful. Samson can be wistful, but never sentimental, thanks to humour and irony and shockingly good writing. Find all three on Relative Surplus Value, for example, a track that is a model of metaphor Caribou can’t touch: “The CEO takes me aside,” sings Samson, “I’m down 12 points and they’re selling. The graphs in the boardroom show by the time that the market opens in Tokyo, I’ll be worthless. So what I’m trying to say, I mean what I’m asking is, I know we haven’t talked in awhile, but, could you come get me?” At the song’s outset, Samson warns, “You won’t be smiling when you hear how this one ends,” but just try not to.

Call the 2009 Polaris a single-finger salute to mainstream listeners in general, as Fucked Up walked away—even to the band’s surprise—with $20,000 for The Chemistry of Common Life. It’s raw punk, complete with shouted vocals and power chords, and it’s aggressively, even innovatively, unmelodic. Folk suggests itself as a natural remedy, with Montreal’s Ben Spencer a frontrunner for his third album, Saboteurs. Opener Accident Freaks showcases his talent as a guitarist with a knack for balancing intricacy with subtlety. The former Edmontonian also shows a Samsonian aptitude for lyrics on 99, which spins Wayne Gretzky’s 1988 departure to Los Angeles into a touching portrait of personal loss. The one feature Saboteurs shares with Chemistry is inventiveness. Spencer has a revisionist’s affection for the waltz. The three-four closer Telegram From Shucksville (which, incidentally, sounds like Spencer penning his own invitation to return west) incorporates the stop-start of a tapped missive: “Big-city life can be hard STOP Everyone would understand if you’d come home STOP.”

Give the 2010 jury credit for recognizing Karkwa’s Les Chemins de Verre, an exceptional record that should make English-speaking Canada wonder what else it’s missing by ignoring Quebec’s francophone rock scene. While the band could stand to distance itself more from the slack, hipster grooves of Broken Social Scene, its parallels with Radiohead circa OK Computer—lots of acoustic guitar with electronic accents, big, frantic beats and layered vocals—give this Montreal band the kind of capaciousness listeners get lost in, regardless of a language barrier. Last year’s closest also-ran represents another largely marginalized genre in Canada: hip hop. But after being shortlisted in 2007 for The Old Prince and again in 2010 for TSOL, the time for Toronto’s Shad, commonly referred to as Canada’s best rapper, will come.

Jaunty and dramatic, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, winner for 2011, is an alchemistic wonder that crosses the threshold separating artistic achievement and commercial success. Tracks Ready to Start and Empty Room are highly danceable. Springsteen could have written Modern Man or Month of May or even City with no Children. Your mom would probably call the ethereal vocals and string arrangements on Half Light I pretty. In other words, The Suburbs is easy to enjoy, almost annoyingly so, despite its obvious attempts to resist convention. And because of that, even more so than with Karkwa, it’s a choice that shouldn’t be argued against, though Canadian music is rich enough in alternatives to do so.

The Suburbs ought to be a model record going forward for the Polaris. The prize’s early years were marked by choices one could only call inaccessible and esoteric. While their juries congratulated themselves on their coolness, the rest of Canada scratched its head and cranked its Top 40 and classic rock. After Polaris cracked the door on one of the nation’s most active and prolific artistic communities, Arcade Fire has thrown it open like an invitation, welcoming an audience needing a little more coaxing and encouragement, but not education. Whether that door remains open is up to future judges, judges who need to ask themselves whether their choices are meant to showcase their refinement as critics or to highlight the talent that enriches popular culture.

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