TORONTO — On one highlight of his new album, Montreal’s Patrick Watson sings of waking up in Beijing in “someone else’s life,” one that he’s not sure belongs to him.
As is usually the case, he’s singing about a character. But in the turbulent years since his second album Close to Paradise landed the Polaris Music Prize in 2007, a travel-weary Watson frequently felt like his life was more than a little bit surreal.
“Imagine you put mashed potatoes on your glasses — that’s how I’d describe the last two years,” Watson said.
“Occasionally, a mashed potato would fall, and you’d say: ‘That’s the Eiffel Tower!’ Then the mashed potatoes would cover that back up.”
That sense of woozy wonder is prevalent on his third album, Wooden Arms, which drops Tuesday.
Watson’s tinkling piano and wispy falsetto are complemented by a pervasive percussive backbone on his new record, adding a more propulsive edge to his typically boundless cabaret pop.
“We wanted a percussive record,” Watson explained. “We want to get out of the droopy, big wall of sound.”
Watson describes his new album as a “science-fiction folk record, action-packed, filled with adventure.”
“It’s a real rollercoaster ride, I’m not going to lie,” he adds with a smile.
Lyrically, Watson says he was inspired by old episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Travelling Salesman, a foreboding march with verses punctuated with some stray guitar notes, is based on Watson’s vision of a depressed salesman sharing drinks with someone who has fallen from the sky, while the album’s title track features a character pining for the embrace of wooden arms.
The record also features a number of details that would seem to refer to Watson’s transitory lifestyle — though he says that wasn’t necessarily intentional.
“For sure we lived on the road, so for sure I think the album has a lot of travelling aspects to it,” he said.
Structurally, his new batch of songs is frequently surprising, which Watson says was by design.
“I’ve always liked composed music,” he said. “Which means, you’re just tryin to tell a story,and you go musically where the story takes you.
For me, that’s the best way to think about it. I don’t think it’s experimental and weird, you just tell a story.
“If a story doesn’t end back where it started, you don’t come back to where you started.”
Where Wooden Arms is self-consciously experimental is in its oddball instrumentation. Watson’s band utilizes pots and pans, drawers, scraps of metal and, on Beijing, drummer Robbie Kuster wails away on a bicycle.
“I wanted to stay away from regular backbeats and regular pop or rock drumming,” Kuster said.
“At some points, I was even sick of playing drums.
“Soundwise, I wanted to do bigger drums than Close to Paradise. Give me a bass kick the size of a car — I want big drums, I gotta feel them!”