Dan Mangan’s second LP Nice, Nice, Very Nice gets its name from a Kurt Vonnegut poem.
The choice is a fitting one because while he may not yet be as talented as Vonnegut, who was arguably one of the past century’s greatest satirists, Mangan’s music often details the absurdity inherent in human life as Vonnegut did.
His first full-length album was criticized by some for being too much of the earnest singer-songwriter school, replete with unnecessary and possibly self-indulgent introspection. While this could be true of Postcards and Daydreaming, the new album Nice moves beyond that to establish Mangan as an artist who can examine both himself and the world around him without losing the important ability to keep a grin on his face afterward.
The lyrics occasionally skew maudlin, as on the track “Et Les Mots CroisÃ©s,” but Mangan moves back to examine issues larger than him. He is also funny and silly as often as he is serious and sad.
The music is fitting for Mangan’s songwriting style — he sings with a backdrop of acoustic guitar as well as subtle strings and horns that often take centre stage. His use of background instruments is adroit, with consistently powerful crescendos and sudden decrescendos that often produce shivers in the listener.
“Basket,” a song written about Mangan’s grandfather, is uncannily good at depicting a life gone by too quickly, especially for a 26-year-old who obviously has not experienced that. With only one or two lines to indicate that any time at all has passed, Mangan moves from singing about being young to the line “We are old,” which ushers in two verses of unhappy examination of the narrator’s old age.
Not getting bogged down in explaining the passage of time not only allows Mangan to look deeper into the man’s feelings about his old age, but also makes the transition more poignant. By the time he gets to the line “I used to be so young, how did I get so old?” I am either singing along, feeling like crying or both.