David Usher – Ushering in the End of the World

Songs From the Last Day on Earth is David Usher’s eighth solo release since the heady days of Canadian super-group Moist, and seemingly the most sober in terms of subject matter and content.

Usher has said that Songs From the Last Day on Earth is a “theme” record in terms of all the material reflecting the same overall subject matter… namely, a group of friends gathering for the last time at the end of the world. The record centers on the idea of growth in relationships, and is a somewhat alternative-sounding – but adult-radio-friendly – record.

Usher’s approach on each of his albums has always been somewhat understated, but Songs From the Last Day on Earth reflects a true sense of minimalism insofar as Usher’s approach to songwriting and arranging is concerned. Usher says that having had the opportunity to tour as a three-piece, and play more intimate venues in support of his previous acoustic album, really illustrated how much more of a vulnerable and open experience that can be, and he says this experience very much informed the process of how the album was recorded.

The production is very light-handed, and there is also a certain rawness to it, which gives the songs more room to breathe. On the other hand, the lyric content is rather heavy and dark, as I suppose the title of the record would imply. “It’s not about the end of the world in a literal sense,” Usher clarifies. “It’s more about the idea that if you found yourself at the end of your life, in that final instant, how would you distill all your experiences down to the few moments that really mattered? If you read about people who find themselves at the end of their lives, and you hear what they talk about, it’s usually very specific and very similar. They talk about family and friends. They talk about the personal things they wished they’d taken the time to do, or of the things they wished they hadn’t been afraid to do. This record is a mixture of those ideas. The idea of being less afraid of the things that we’re afraid of, usually for the wrong reasons, and at the same time, keeping the moments that matter close.”

Usher’s distinctive and plaintive voice and vocal approach is what drives these songs, and his unique timbre and delivery really shines on tracks like City of Light and All These Simple Things. And while the arrangements on Songs From the Last Day on Earth are not particularly groundbreaking, Usher’s lyrics and vocals are solidly anchored and earnestly delivered. One of the standout tracks on this record – the piano-driven Stay – is a truly lovely piece of music. A repetitive piano line lies beneath Usher’s understated vocal, embracing it and giving it forward movement and warmth. The heartfelt and sincere lyrics to the chorus – Here in my arms, just stay – encapsulate and illustrate what really becomes important at the end of the world: connection. But with the advent of so many new forms of communication, how does one establish a genuine and real relationship in these fast-moving times?

The irony, of course, is that the same advances in technology that enable these instantaneous connections also potentially keep us more disconnected and further apart than ever.

Usher says: “I’ve always been very much a first-adopter of new technology. I’ve always been very into it and aware of its impact, and I find the act of social media very interesting overall. The world today seems to sometimes move like a Facebook thread, in that our experiences all kind of float by us now. So much of this record is about flashes of memory, and trying to hold onto them; so much of it is about our inability to stay in, and really appreciate, the moment as it’s happening.

“There’s so little time for context these days, and we now all have to be so cautious of the ‘small information byte.’ There’s very little time to place things in some sort of conceptual space, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. There’s a lot of amazing things about the technology. It gives us so many new and amazing ways to communicate; it can be very connective as well.”

And having another language at his disposal, in this case French, widens the opportunity for Usher to make even more connections. Songs From the Last Day on Earth has two French-language version tracks on it: Partir ailleurs (Go Somewhere Else) and Répondez-moi (Answer Me). Usher’s decision to once again record a track that isn’t in his native tongue is a sincere one. “It’s pretty personal for me,” Usher confesses. “I live in a French neighbourhood, my kids go to a French school, and I’m endlessly taking French lessons and working hard on getting better at it. I did (the recording) because of where I live, and because of the fact that it was a fun and challenging thing to do. That’s always the goal for me with every record, to find new things to challenge myself with.” And having another language to draw from certainly gives Usher another potent tool to communicate with, and to help get his message across.

The theme of Songs From the Last Day on Earth is clearly illustrated in the video for the single – Rice Paper. The video summarizes six years in the life of a couple, all boiled down into a three-minute video; from meeting, to dating, to breaking up, to getting back together, and finally, to having a child. Rice Paper is shot using a uniquely point of view perspective, giving the watcher the opportunity to become more immersed and attached to the story and video. And while the choice to shoot the video from a first-person angle also gives the video a strange sense of distance, the story itself, conversely, draws the listener in. It’s an interesting effect and dichotomy in terms of establishing an emotional connection to the material.

“I feel connected to the record in the sense that it really is written about my experiences, my friends and family, and about my life here (in Montreal),” Usher says. “I’ve been very lucky to find myself in a position where I can write and record with my best friends. Songs was done in kind of a shambled way – partly at my house, partly in the studio – but we made sure it was always made in a way and in a place that we were all very comfortable with.

“Every record has been about change and transition, and that’s the nature and crux of the human condition. But we also tend to constantly work ahead and behind that change. We focus on the past or the future, but rarely do we work in the moment. I know it’s something that I struggle with. It’s something that’s very hard to do, now more than ever.” And with the release of Songs From the Last Day on Earth, Usher is reminding us to enjoy and appreciate being in the moment.

David Usher will be at The Bronson Centre Theatre in Ottawa on Friday, November 16.