STEVEN PAGE ASKS A LOT OF QUESTIONS BUT HE DOESN'T LIKE GIVING ANSWERS. HE'D RATHER HAVE THE CONVERSATION IN THE SONG. AND ON DISCIPLINE: HEAL THYSELF, PART II, IT'S ONE HELL OF A CONVERSATION.
Recorded in Canada and upstate New York with longtime live bands Odds and The Original Six, and frequent collaborator Craig Northey, Discipline is Page’s fifth solo album and the spiritual follow-up to 2016’s Heal Thyself, Pt. I: Instinct. Musically the album funnels Page’s love of 70s/80s radio-ready soul and R&B through the heady pop prism of David Byrne and Kevin Rowland with some 80s weirdness thrown in. Lyrically it will stop at nothing to knock you on your ass.
None of this is surprising. Page was recently inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame with his former band, the Barenaked Ladies. He has always been a prolific writer of words and hooks, but on Discipline they’re delivered with such a clear-eyed confidence and purposeful vision that somehow it feels like an evolution, a breakthrough and a homecoming all at once. Page deploys existential heft, dystopian visions, savage humor and a killer horn section like a many-headed hydra with sights trained squarely on himself – and by extension the question of what it means to be an artist at all in a time like this.
“In our rock culture the three major times of political music-making were the late 60s, the punk movement in the 70s and then the late 80s, and there’s a lot to learn from each,” says Page, who as a Canadian citizen that has lived in the U.S. for more than five years, is currently unable to vote in either country. “On this album a lot of these songs are asking questions like, ‘What are you giving away, and to what purpose? To make yourself feel better or look better? Or do you actually think you can inspire change?’ I’ve watched lots of my peers going off on social media, but it’s so brief, like picking fights in the air. I’d rather talk about it in music.”
And talk he does – better than most of us. Throughout Discipline Page acts as a sort of shape-shifting Zelig, a melodious Dr. Who – freewheeling through time and space to pop in, poke fun, relive and reimagine key moments in music history, while also wading in some of the weightier socio-political waters of the last century, all as a way to ask new questions, prefigure new futures and try to make sense of right now.
On “White Noise,” written in the wake of events in Charlottesville, Page pays homage to the politically-charged music that came out of the UK in the 70s and 80s – artists like the Clash, Style Council, Billy Bragg and The Jam – which he credits as fueling in him a sense of activism and excitement for music as a kid.
“I grew up in a household where social justice was a fundamental value, and I always believed that it was a fundamental Canadian value as well as a central Jewish one,” says Page. “And I’ve watched how the term has been twisted and perverted by the Right over the last several years in an effort to diminish the voices of reason. The open displays of racism and antisemitism, and the chants of ‘Jews Will Not Replace Us’ made me grab my guitar and tell them I’d be more than glad to replace them.”
Elsewhere Discipline swings from the super political to the super personal with electricity and ease, taking on everything from the AIDS crisis to “politically conscious” pomposity to dubious parental advice. Musically, the album bounces easily from Stax-styled horns to punk aggression; from Zombies-esque pop to Steely Dan slickness all the while showcasing Page’s formidable vocal agility, freer on Discipline than ever before.
Through it all, Page’s razor wit, dark humor and preternatural gift for melody remain ever-present like a truss rod – deploying comic relief, ninja-like hooks and a killer horn section as needed to ensure Discipline never buckles under its own weight.
Taking cues from the great soul anthems of the 70s, album-closer “Looking for the Light” finds Page ending things on a hopeful note – one stripped of the winking irony and irreverence that have become his signature. And whether it’s a spiritual destination, or a promise of better times to come, it’s clear that Page is headed somewhere he’s never been before – and we’re lucky to go along for the ride.