THE DEARS at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Thursday to Saturday (November 16-18). $20. With LAND OF TALK tonight (Thursday), doors 8 pm, and Friday, doors 9 pm. With OHBIJOU Saturday, doors 2 pm (all ages matinee) and 9 pm. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Murray Lightburn is infamous for many reasons.
People know the imposing, brooding frontman of Montreal's Dears as the guy who shreds his vocal cords with gut-churning howls at every single show, the guy who supposedly wept when hero Morrissey offered his band an opening slot, the guy who's more likely to have beer than blood coursing through his veins.
But lately, Lightburn has developed a clandestine alternate life.
"It's like the struggle of the superhero," laughs a surprisingly cheery Lightburn over the phone from Italy, fresh from feeling floored by the Sistine Chapel. "I'm like Clark Kent trying to avoid my worlds colliding. Suddenly, I have a crazy attraction to order and organization. I wear the same suit to every show - my dry cleaning bill's through the roof - and I have the same street clothes as well. I'll buy 10 pairs of exactly the same jeans, shoes and socks. It's the weirdest thing that's come out of this insane life of a different city every day, different map every night.
"In our time off, I became really domestic, cooking dinner and vacuuming, buying diapers at Costco. It was playing house, but the real deal was getting to be a dad and a husband. On the bus, we have a little room for the three of us, with a foldaway travel crib and a bed, a cooler for milk. I wait for it to get messy so I can tidy it up, vacuum and fold laundry and stuff. I need that so badly. Our last tour, we got out of control to the point where I felt like I was in Mötley Crüe. Now I'm trying to keep the party away from me."
Murray Lightburn as Superdad? For those keeping score at home, the "three of us" refers to Lightburn, wife and co-founding bandmate Natalia Yanchak and their almost one-year-old tiny Dear, Neptune. And while Lightburn's far from pulling a Chris Martin and forming a baby-talk band called the Nappies, it's impossible to ignore the profound effects fatherhood's had on him, musically and personally.
Not only does he project an almost Zen sense of calm and friendliness in conversation, but the Dears' latest disc feels like the work of another man - even another band. Where 04's No Cities Left and even their debut, End Of A Hollywood Bedtime Story, seemed to hinge on epic sturm und drang, sweeping orchestral explosions and Lightburn's frayed-nerve howl, Gang Of Losers (MapleMusic) is honed and focused.
The tunes ricochet between eras of British pop, riding ominous organ-like keyboards, galloping eddies of cabaret guitars, sudden spurts of muddy post-grunge rock and, occasionally, ethereal brass swoops. And lyrically, Lightburn's avoided his typical hopeless/ portentous tone in favour of jarringly personal clarity, from the guarded optimism of lead track Ticket Of Immortality (a love letter to Neptune) to Whites Only Party's caustic evisceration of liberal guilt over race relations.
The Dears have refused to sacrifice their intensity. But the new disc's tonal shift still means they're stuck struggling with mixed reactions from fans and critics, particularly in Europe, where No Cities Left served as a massive breakthrough moment.
Lightburn says he was prepared for the backlash.
"We could've put out shit on a stick for this album and people would still be pissed cuz they decided it signified a stab at radio play. I mean, can you really imagine a song called Death Or Life We Want You topping the Billboard charts?"
But despite Lightburn's outward cucumber-cool facade, despite the grounding he's found in fatherhood, despite his admission that Gang Of Losers is the first Dears disc he can actually listen to and feel proud of, he claims that something's still off.
Like any good superhero, the dude's left with his own inner turmoil, which means that you never know when the Dears might revert back to chaos.
"Gang Of Losers offers a rare moment of clarity, which is probably not what everyone wants from the Dears. They want a fuckin' howling animal onstage. Right now we're the sober Dears, whereas the rest of the career is drugs and alcohol and insanity.
"Weirdly, after all the normal stuff, I'm finding more and more that there's still a ridiculous caged animal inside me," he says softly. "I'm worried because I can feel this insane rage, and I don't know when it's gonna come out or how."