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Joel Plaskett delivers a hit of nostalgia on The Park Avenue Sobriety Test

Joel with an electric guitar pointing at a group of polaroids on the wall beside him

Past and present

By Meaghan Baxter, Vue Weekly

Half the fun of a good party is recounting the night’s escapades the next day, and Joel Plaskett got to relive his 40th birthday party in reverse as he put records back in their sleeves the following morning.

“Cheap Trick’s ‘Surrender’ was the last song of the night, and it just went backwards from there,” he recalls with a laugh, admitting it took him a couple of days to recover from the “proper five-in-the-morning blowout’ that took place at his studio. “That’s how I like parties—when I don’t put things back into the sleeves—because it’s more fun the next day to go, what did everybody pick? You get to see it all backwards because it just ends up in a huge stack.”

That milestone birthday—the ostensible new 20, as it were—ties into the themes present on Plaskett’s new album, Joel Plaskett & The Park Avenue Sobriety Test, the nickname given to the metal guardrail on the corner of Park Avenue and King Street in Dartmouth, NS. It serves as a metaphor of sorts for the trials of adulthood; the title also forms the acronym “PAST,” and the songs play on autobiographical and observational musings with a certain degree of nostalgia, something Plaskett notes is present on all of his records.

“I have a seven-year-old son now who is a big part of my life and has probably changed the way I think about certain things. Not that I feel a whole lot different about anything after becoming a parent, but it puts your mortality and your sort-of mission statement, it changes the view a little,” he explains. “I think I’m becoming a little more outspoken about the things that bother me because I’m just starting to look at the world going, OK, this little guy’s got to inhabit this when I’m gone.”

Lyrically, Plaskett says the record bounces back and forth between retreating into the past and looking through rose-coloured glasses and dealing with the present, as well as dealing with yourself.

“There’s all these forces at play in the world that can bring about unhappiness, and certainly there’s all the social and economic struggles that a lot of people face that I don’t. I can still find things to complain about, so my desire is to find worthy things to complain about opposed to just picky stuff—so I make fun of Bon Jovi on the record,” he jokes. “There are always things that are going to make you unhappy and that can almost cause you to be so unhappy that you bring that unhappiness to other people.”

The lyrics may encompass darker elements and social commentary, but Plaskett wanted to strike a balance and inject a sense of positivity and humour to his songs as well. For example, the title track lays out morose topics like watching your friends “drop like flies,” not being able to pay rent, the disparity of society and escaping into your dreams, but it’s all weaved within a rollicking, uptempo sing-along.

And while there is a consistent lyrical theme throughout the album, Plaskett notes he wanted to create some diversity in the melodies.

“I sort of flip between folk and rock and I try to make the production a little bit surprising,” he adds. “I’m not doing EDM tracks or anything; I’m trying to bring at least my love of different kinds of music under one roof, but I feel like the thing that can tie the overarching variety together is the lyrics.”

Much of Park Avenue was tracked live off the floor, with about 20 of Plaskett’s friends and collaborators on deck filling in different parts—Dave Marsh and Chris Pennell of the Emergency, Tim Brennan, Peter Elkas, J P Cormier and Mo Kenney, to name a few. It ties together his musical history past and present, which seems fitting given the album’s thematic elements.

“We had a lot of fun making it,” he says. I think for me that was really paramount to the process, and so I still get a lot of joy when I’m listening to it, because it surprises me. I’m not even sure who’s playing what half the time.”

Sat, May 9 (8 pm)
With Mo Kenney
Union Hall, $26