[POWER POP] I used to laugh at John Cougar when he sang, “Ooh yeah, life goes on/ Long after the thrill of living is gone” in “Jack and Diane.” But now that I’ve got some gray hairs and a pot belly, that sentimental piece of clap-along pop seems like a much more vulgar joke.
Boat’s 30-year-old frontman, David Crane, packages his coming-of-age nihilism in just as appealing a pop sheen as Cougar (who was 31 when “Jack and Diane” came out). “You can declaw all of your pets,” Crane sings in his wobbly, cartoon voice to start Boat’s new record, Setting the Paces. “But your new black sofa will still be a mess.” The knee-jerk reaction here is to giggle at the couplet, despite its sly critique of suburban futility. Crane would prefer you don’t laugh. “I’m not joking,” he sings. “I’m feeling real seriously.”
A lot of people have mistaken Seattle’s Boat for a joke-rock band. Perhaps Crane’s plain-spoken lyrical style and hand-drawn album illustrations—not to mention his charmingly incompetent falsetto and Boat’s bouncy stage persona—don’t help combat the notion. But for all its clever, Malkmus-esque one-liners, Setting the Paces is a bit of a heartbreaker. It’s a diatribe against the aging process, a foe that can’t possibly be beaten. “Everyone I know who is my age is not real excited about hitting 30,” Crane writes via email. Not that it’s all bad. “I bought a house, got a new teaching job, moved to a new town [Tacoma]...I guess I am really happy.”
But in his lyrics, it’s clear Crane wants it both ways—to have the freedom of growing up without all the boring responsibility. It’s a worldview that comes in part from his job as a teacher. “I think that I often view things through the same lens as a middle schooler,” he says. “I am still nervous about who to hang out with at meals [and] break times, I still try to get away with cutting corners on big assignments. I daydream and draw pictures when I should be taking notes.” That escapism is addressed on Boat’s pop-punk opus “Interstate 5.” “Sippin’ diet cola, eating with my family/ Sleeping in pajamas way too small for me/ I didn’t ask for this, man you gotta help me out,” Crane sings, finding himself on the fast track to adulthood. Boat tours come in handy. “Interstate 5, come on, take me out of this mess,” Crane sings. Distortion bubbles up, barely hiding the sound of a soda can popping open.
Whether Boat likes it or not, Setting the Paces showcases an incredible amount of growth on the band’s behalf. Where the band’s previous discs—2006’s Songs That You Might Not Like and 2007’s Let’s Drag Our Feet—felt uneven, Setting the Paces plays beautifully from front to back. It actually manages to be more thoughtful and fun than either of the band’s solid previous releases, with earnest singalong jams like “Lately” and “Reverie” standing out as some of the finest pop tunes to come around this year.
Late in the disc, Crane has made great strides in coping with adulthood’s encroachment, realizing he doesn’t need to return to his childhood, he just needs a break every once in a while, singing, “In the apple tree behind my old house/ Was a little place where I would hide out/ Looking for a new place now that it’s gone/ One that I can go to whenever I want.” Sometimes you find profundity in strange of places—“Jack and Diane,” or even a Boat song called “(Do the) Magic Centipede.”
SEE IT: Boat plays Thursday, Nov. 5, at the Woods with Brothers Young. 9 pm. $7. 21+.