Here’s the situation. In Nashville, there’s an old, decrepit plantation house where three bedraggled but refined, white gentlemen drop beats, craft wordplay, design artwork, and arrange orchestral maneuvers in the dark. The structure is called Joy Mansion, and the men who dwell there staring each other down and exercising their creative rivalry for all it’s worth collaborate under the moniker of Paper Route. Having toured relentlessly with the likes of Passion Pit and mewithoutyou, won hearts and minds with their debut album Absence (2009), paid musical tribute to Lou Reed to the man’s imperturbable face at South by Southwest, and insinuated themselves into pop culture consciousness when their song, “The Music,” appeared in the film (500) Days of Summer, Paper Route have now seen fit to go for broke on the possibility that epic earnestness, lyrical depth, and poetic heft can all coincide within one ridiculously catchy song collection primarily preoccupied with—wait for it–tragedy, disappointment, and loss. Behold The Peace of Wild Things.
“Everyone can relate to hurt,” observes J.T. Daly, Paper Route’s chief lyricist, singer, and artwork conjurer. For Daly and bandmate Chad Howat, The Peace of Wild Things banks on the hope that popular art can be made to arise out of horrible situations. Whereas the timing of the album’s production schedule coincided with a dire cancer diagnosis within Howat’s immediate family, the lyrics Daly brought to the table largely document the dissolution of his marriage. As Daly sees it, the risk of raw candor and vulnerability is the whole point, “If I’m not terrified by what I’m doing, I’d prefer to move back to Ohio and work on my art. I’m drawn to the fact that it makes me feel uncomfortable.”
With songs like “Letting You Let Go” and “Glass Heart Hymn,” he’s determined to show his hand at every turn. Irony and cool detachment be damned.
The same goes for in-house, music-making competition and the angst Daly felt as he stood on the staircase listening to everything Howat was working on. “I’m going to have to come up with something better than that,” he’d note with dread as he leaned into their collective commitment to try to out-interesting each other. In this sense, Daly and Howat are joined together in a pact of escalating catchiness, a refusal to “throw in the towel on this whole idea of instant melody.” Daly explains, “I have so much respect for artists who continue to infiltrate pop culture” with “ideas executed so brilliantly that they’ve kind of Trojan-horsed malls across America.” The trajectory he has in mind is evident with The Peace of Wild Things’ lead single, “Better Life,” which is carefully calibrated to colonize the public imagination in under five minutes.
Given such standards, it’s no surprise that names like Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel are spoken with awe and reverence around Joy Mansion. Howat notes the way Peter Gabriel’s So is comprised of one undeniably infectious track after another even as it’s clearly a creative labor in which he’s “trying to please himself” at every turn in “a perfect juxtaposition of pop culture and artistic endeavor.” With mixing and recording responsibilities falling in Howat’s lap (“The computer is my first instrument”), the work of sorting through two to three albums’ worth of material and narrowing it all down to something worthy eventually became a question of serving the band’s obsession with block-rocking beats: “Everyone in the band loves beats, and the beats we gravitate toward are hip-hop-esque beats.” For Howat, the love affair began at 14 when a Yamaha V-50 was vouchsafed upon him (”My dad bought it for me as an 8th grade graduation present.”) an artifact Paper Route won’t get caught touring without. Incidentally, it’s the move from studio to live performance that wouldn’t be possible without the energies of drummer Gavin McDonald (Howat: “We wouldn’t be a band without Gavin.”) who landed with Paper Route through his work with fellow Joy Mansion occupant Canon Blue (AKA Daniel James).
While The Peace of Wild Things lyrically chronicles specific experiences of soul- crushing disillusionment and a fractured sense of faith and wonder down to the minute particulars, its creators presume—very much in the traditions of Romantic poetry and 80’s New Wave (Tears for Fears, A-ha)–that creatively fixating on the local, the achingly personal even, is probably the surest path to the universal. And it is here that the concluding track, “Calm My Soul,” offers a determined hopefulness well-earned by the preceding sad songs which have said so much. In this way, Paper Route shoots for a continuum with Daly’s go-to writers, Wendell Berry and Douglas Coupland, whose presence as an influence is as a-typical and unexpected as the band’s guiding presumption that pop songs, making them and hearing them, might occasionally render pained life more livable.