Album Review: Operators - Blue Wave

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

"I felt a blue wave coming on." If there were any way to sum up the trying events that led up to the amalgamation of Dan Boeckner's latest project Operators, the album's title track does it pretty well. Dan Boeckner, responsible for Wolf Parade (alongside Spencer Krug) and Handsome Furs (alongside Alexei Perry), is a man known for both his incredible repertoire and his insurmountable work ethic. But in May of 2012, a year and a half after he and Krug announced a Wolf Parade hiatus, he was on a two-week trip to LA to hang with Britt Daniel and record the debut album for Divine Fits when his life took a new path. A phone call ended both his marriage and Handsome Furs, even while still awaiting results on their Polaris prize short-listing for 2011's Sound Kapital. The two week trip turned into a couple years. After recording with Divine Fits and touring the record through the following year, Dan stayed out in California, sometimes in LA, sometimes in San Jose and even the Silicon Valley. Those years in California were Boeckner's Berlin period in a lot of ways - a chance to bond with a city you can lose yourself in and a chance to find new landscapes for inspiration. Well, in the end, inspiration didn't take long to find him. As early as Coachella 2013, Dan and Divine Fits drummer Sam Brown (also of New Bomb Turks) began writing together, playing around with electronic textures and recording demos. Not long after, singer and electronic artist Devojka joined the fray, who had opened for Handsome Furs in years prior and now lived in California as well. By fall of 2014, the band had over 15 songs recorded, and they made their recording debut with a self-released EP, entering the world the same day as their radio debut on KEXP. Then last year, the band further whetted our appetites the one-off dance jammer "Ecstasy in my House". And now, this week, we finally have their full-length Blue Wave in our hands. Blue Wave is a dazzling synth-rock diamond, and its the most fun you'll have with heartbreak all year.

Two themes dominate Blue Wave (and Operators at large): cold and control. The latter shows up first, both on the dislocation-ridden new wave opener "Rome" (complete with some incredible Peter Hook-esque bass lines) and the funkadelic synth-rock follow up. Moving from station to station, Boeckner shakes his head at the passers by. "Don't waste your time, it's only luck", he mutters. Legacy and good intentions - they are all meaningless. On "Control" he remarks, "When you're gone, there's only the document of what you've done". "Remote Kontrol", the non-album b-side that the band has played live in the past, touches on similar themes of digital abstraction and loss of communication signals. Later, Boeckner worries about the "Shape of Things" to come, borrowing themes from the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, hoping the pinpoint some concept of the future drawing from the knowns of the past. Over the course of these songs, Boeckner highlights just how much energy we spend trying to come up with some sort of solution in this arena, however pointless it might be. Control is an illusion - one that slips from your fingers at the most inopportune times.

But in the wake of the blue wave, we have a choice. "Put your heart in the hands of the city", Boeckner sings on "Cold Light". On the single's artwork, Boeckner looks like Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic then stuck in an icebox. At first, it looks somber, mournful even, but then you realize it's just a shade - a choice of lens for the shot. If it's a blue wave coming, then embrace it and see what new colors you can draw on when you put your heart into the cold light. It's the same "ancient cold in [your] bones" that haunted Dan on "Ancient" off of EP1, but now, it's playing on his team. The album's title track makes the blue wave of restarting after a breakup sound like a new wave dream (complete with some of the most delicious saxophone you'll hear this side of 1984). Boeckner calls upon the 80s again for the solidarity power ballad "Nobody". "Speak, memory", Dan calls out, "I keep nobody close to me".

Ultimately, the blue wave serves not only to repaint the scenery, but to shine new light on familiar ideals. The album's two closing statements touch on this quite perfectly. "Evil", the album's most rock-heavy number (it could even be mistaken for a Wolf Parade track if not for the synthesizer on the chorus), asks about the powers that be and what say we really have in the way the world turns. "Space Needle" turns the question inwards, not looking on the powers that be but the power we have to change what ails us. Dissatisfied with the way things are, two lovers attempt to make promises to each other. "We're leaving here tomorrow but tomorrow never comes. I wait and wait and wait - I'm easy, and so are you." As the drive of Sam Brown's drums pummel forward, things fall apart, not with bombs, but soft crumbling by the wayside. Dan's reflection herein is unmistakable and deeply necessary. It's this thematic arch that rounds out Blue Wave so perfectly. With Operators, Dan Boeckner has the most singular and most authoritative creative control over a project as he's ever had, and with that power, he's chosen to give us something as rendering as it is vulnerable. Don't get distracted by how groovy it is from top to bottom. Strip off the phenomenal layers of synth-rock majesty, and you have a Dan Boeckner record that will make you feel like the best of them.

Back in January, Wolf Parade announced that their hiatus was officially over. Dan and Spencer wrote new material in 2015 and will be taking it on the road with them as they begin their return, first in New York, Toronto, London, and Montreal this summer, then Pickathon and Seattle in August. Sub Pop also announced a deluxe reissue of Wolf Parade debut Apologies to the Queen Mary, which turned 10 last September. It's a funny thing to think about, really, that it has only been 10 years. In that time, we've received three albums each from Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs and the soundtrack to Adult World (mostly previously released Handsome Furs material) as well as the Divine Fits record and the entirety of the Operators catalogue. Dan Boeckner simply does not slow down. And with Wolf Parade's reunion on the horizon, time will only tell what's next for Operators after this tour ends at the end of April. But more than anything else - more than the fantastic LP which is Blue Wave and all the awe-inspiring dance parties the band throws when you get to see them live - Operators is a fitting and necessary chapter in the Dan Boeckner discography, a difficult but triumphant struggle, only to start again and again and again. It's life cast in the cold light to remember that it's only a matter of perspective.

Blue Wave is out this week on Last Gang Records. Grab it at your local record store on CD or vinyl. Operators will tour behind the new album, and you can catch them at Sunset Tavern on April 4. Grab tickets here.

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