Even when they were valourizing the promise of youth on early-oughts indie-rock anthems like “Young Offenders” and “Young Lions” and various other songs with word “young” in their title, Toronto via Guelph rabble-rousers the Constantines sounded like old souls. Theirs was a message of living for the moment, undercut by the knowledge that the moment wasn’t going to last, with frontman Bry Webb’s voice betraying equal measures of defiance and defeatism. By the time the Constantines released their fourth album, 2008’s Kensington Heights, the band’s once-fierce soul-punk salvos had been tempered into something more humble and haggard.
Yet even that gradual power-down—which culminated in the band going on hiatus—didn’t prepare us for the library-friendly hush of Webb’s 2011 solo debut, Provider. As its title suggests, that record addressed Webb’s retreat into day-jobbing domesticity and entry into parenthood, with little of the sentimentalism and solipsism that often results when former-wild-child rockers write songs about their kids. Rather, the album’s bounty of percussion-free, pedal-steel ballads frankly discussed fatherhood as a nobly unglamourous duty, one that demands great sacrifice for intangible rewards.
Where Provider seemingly closed the covers on Webb’s past life, his new album, Free Will, arrives just as that book is set to open once again. The Constantines recently announced a summer reunion tour, a belated campaign to commemorate the 11th anniversary of their best (and soon-to-be-reissued) record Shine a Light. Free Will, however, underscores why that tour is limited to just four dates. The album’s slumber-folk hymns and dirt-road shuffles map out Webb’s continued journey away from the Constantines’ amped-up attack. Ironically, by adopting an increasingly conversational croon, his voice has actually grown smoother with age. And with a few years of parenting under his belt, Webb sounds more relaxed and loosened-up here, his ruminations on dad-life infused with touches of sly humour. “Positive people / are having children,” he sighs like someone who’s dodged his share of SUV strollers, before reciting his new mantra: “Strength through boredom / Strength through joy.” Domestic bliss can easily turn to blahs, but Free Will’s valourous odes to the “days beyond the ordinary days” suggest it’s victory enough to keep one’s cool while cleaning up the drool.
Free Will is out May 20 on Idee Fixe Records, ideefixerecords.com.