When Patrick Watson — both a Montreal band and the name of its frontman — won the 2007 Polaris Prize over such beloved bigger names as the Arcade Fire and Feist, the same indie dudes who champion underdogs cried foul. Few Americans had heard his winning album, 2006's Close to Paradise, and when they did in light of his victory (the Polaris is akin to England's prestigious Mercury Prize), some dismissed it as Jeff Buckley/Rufus Wainwright-wannabe fodder.
This much is true: Watson the man sings tenor and falsetto with a swoony, androgynous lilt that evokes the late Grace-ful troubadour, and Watson the band creates and plays fanciful, string-wrapped arrangements with a grandeur akin to Wainwright. These are distinctions, not drawbacks on their third album. Instead of a conventional drum set and steady beats, intricate bursts of exotic percussion decorate rather than dominate the chamber music. Electric guitar takes a supporting role, and the same is sometimes true for Watson's voice: Slurring and swooping in the background of rippling cuts like "Tracy's Waters," his vocals add mood rather than meaning. For his duets with fellow Montreal vocalists Lhlasa ("Wooden Arms") and Katie Moore ("Big Bird in a Small Cage"), Watson's at the forefront, and the settings are folkier, more accessible.
Either way, Watson's own personality remains elusive. Both "Beijing" and "Man Like You" willfully embrace identity loss: "I knew a place you can go for your head to explode/Into peace of mind," he warbles in the latter. "Where the Wild Things Are" wanders further along this escape route. Over accompaniment that sways between circular Steve Reich-like motifs and misty 4AD ambience, Watson celebrates abandon: "I put my wolf suit on/And I howl all night/I run around and lose my mind." For now, madness and mystery becomes him.