"I think there's a hell of a good buck to be made out of solving our problems. So we'll probably solve them for better or worse."
--Doug Randle, quoted in the original liner notes to Songs for the New Industrial State.
There's a funny mix of cynicism and optimism in that quotation from Canadian songwriter Doug Randle that nicely sums up the prevailing sentiment of his lone album. Originally recorded only for broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1970, the record was ostensibly given a new lease on life when the Kanata label picked it up the following year for release, but poor distribution ensured its quick trip into the recesses of Canadian music history, where it remained until now.
On its surface, Songs for the New Industrial State is a sunny pop record adorned with many of the baroque trappings of adult-aimed light music records and California pop-psych, but there's much at work within that glossy interior. Randle turns his background composing music for advertisements inside-out with lyrics that carefully dissect the very methods he employed to sell things and lay their phoniness bare. In the late 60s and early 70s, lyrics decrying the artifice of a plastic world and environmental degradation weren't uncommon, but Randle does it differently, sometimes with a charming awkwardness that leaves the notion of rhyme scheme behind. He'd written musicals for the CBC, and that background is evident here, too-- the album as a whole feels something like an inversion of the industrial musicals that large companies frequently staged at shareholder meetings and sales events from the 40s into the 80s.
Randle doesn't sing or play anything on the album, instead serving as the composer/conductor while steady studio hands take care of the instrumental parts. The dual vocals of Tommy Ambrose and Laurie Bower, which alternate between harmony and unison singing, give the record a distinctive, plush feel. They help to sell Randle's vision of commerce trampling nature and peace of mind amid the fanfare of trumpets and strings as surely as the lady who sang "My Bathroom Is a Private Kind of Place" sold American Standard fixtures. Randle's open-hearted sincerity and tendency to say exactly what he's thinking without irony means that a lot of modern listeners will have to make a bit of an adjustment for lines like "Warm wood/ It looks like warm wood/ Touch it/ It feels like colored plastic."
"Nicolston Dam" has some of the album's best imagery as Randle contrasts the pace of modern life with just sitting and watching trout leap over a dam, which nicely ties in the environmental themes that are also on his mind. On the odd, harpsichord-stuffed "One-Way Swimming" he offers to a hypothetical partner a way to get even further from the modern world: swimming out into the middle of the ocean. It doesn't quite advocate suicide, but it does suggest that falling off the edge of the world might be a nice escape. At the other end of the record, "Vive La Company" is a satirical portrait of a company man and his wife who tailor their interests and conversation to help him up the corporate ladder while their children walk to school singing commercials.
Randle's battle between cynicism about modern life and wide-eyed optimism is ultimately won by the latter, as he ends the album with "Life Will Be Worth Living". Naturally, many concerns on the record still ring true today, even if our ways of talking and singing about them have evolved as our society has moved from industrial to post-industrial. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but the album is a work of singular vision that earns its second airing through Randle's inventive sense of arrangement and to-the-point honesty.