Contemporary pop culture is packed with conceptions of awkwardness: the Office’s satire, the romance of emo or the aw-shucks of John Hughes films.
Shane Nelken — singer-songwriter in Vancouver’s The Awkward Stage — loves them all.
“Awkwardness is always there. No matter how confidant people seem, there’s some scenario that can make their confidence totally end,” said Nelken, who is joined on the new album by bandmates Tygh Runyan, Tony Koelwyn and Chris Mitchell. “Too often youth is sentimentalized in songs and pop culture as a glorious time, but I think it was a horrible time.”
Nelken’s perspective on awkwardness envelops his work. His debut album’s cover featured a headgear-sporting Nelken perched beside a blow-up doll. Anime Eyes, a track off Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights, references Otaku, a subculture of disaffected Japanese youth that science fiction author William Gibson described as “pathological-techno-fetishist-with-social-deficit” and Nelken as are “disconnected from reality and instead their life is all virtual — that’s their world.”
Despite generally sounding happy, the new record touches on a consistent theme of alienation and disconnection. For example, the title refers to the effect a strong set has on a photo shoot — a situation also brought up in the song Only Good Days Caught on Camera. Nelken explained that the idea behind such images was that managing appearances often doesn’t address root problems, instead just making things look OK.
“I didn’t set out to make a concept album, but most of the songs, if not all of them, deal with things being not quite what they seem,” he said. “[They all cover] some form of delusion.”
Philosophy aside, in a musical sense Nelken draws inspiration from pop outsiders like Nick Lowe. While such artists stuck to the genre’s focus on melody, they also wrote lyrics and music that subverted predictable formats. At the same time, Nelken is conscious of the danger of sounding too clever.
“Nick Lowe (shows that) just because something has a pop melody doesn’t mean it has to be devoid of substance,” he said. “There’s so much punk rock energy running throughout every one of (Lowe’s) songs that make it heavier than some punk in a lot of ways.”