“They call me the giant, the dwarf, the puppet in the strings, but I’ve been the ventriloquist on the high wire shouting out a sermon to pedestrians below”. These lines from “The Stiltwalker” – the poetic opening track to The Night Game’s sophomore album, Dog Years – point to a humanization of sorts. For frontman Martin Johnson, the spectacle of making and performing music is just one side of the story, one cog in the machine that overshadows the honest intent and lived experiences found in one’s lyricism, and the need to survive in both an ever-changing world and an industry that seems to be anything but sympathetic to the needs of an artist.
Johnson’s first outing as The Night Game came in the form of his stellar 2018 self-titled LP with Interscope Records, packed with synth-driven, arena rock anthems, 80s-inspired funk and electropop tracks about romance, and predominantly-introspective ballads about the American dream and longing for a better life. 21/2 years after its release, Johnson’s lyrics now seem to be pointing to the same personal subject matter, but set against the backdrop of a more significant question. Where do you go and who do you turn to when the world around you stalls, overwhelms, or suddenly collapses? The 11 “installments” that make up the independently-released Dog Years play out like the diary entries of a man who proactively and empathetically approaches suffering and personal change head-on – knowing that there are no easy answers, but still trying his best, and having some fun along the way.
From a musical standpoint, Dog Years builds on the sonic template of its predecessor by relying on electrifying hooks, but toying more with the songs’ instrumentation and the space they take up. It’s a risk that mostly pays off. Sure, there are stadium rock cuts reminiscent of “The Outfield” like “Magic Trick” (which deals with combating the disillusionment surrounding the recording industry) and love song “Beautiful Stranger”. There are also atmospheric ballads like the hopeful “One Phone Call” and somber “Dancing in Heaven”. But other tracks like “I Feel Like Dancing” and “Our Generation” follow stronger funk motifs reminiscent of 2018’s “Bad Girls Don’t Cry”. What these songs lack in a Kirin J. Callinan guitar solo, they make up for in their pristine execution and less-reverberated production and mixing that feels sharper than most moments on the album.
Elsewhere, “Hurts So Good” double dips between lucid verses and low-end-heavy choruses. It doesn’t feel tied to a particular style like a number of Johnson’s songs for The Night Game, and in the album’s sequencing it acts as palette cleanser between the aforementioned ballads. The most notable and promising risk on Dog Years, however, comes in the form of the gritty “Companion”. Built on 90s breakbeat drums and a hazy combination of synths and guitars that don’t feel too distant from Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”, Johnson is joined by singer/songwriter Elle King to deliver veracious, gripping vocals about wanting to escape the loneliness of a fractured relationship as they sing “I can feel in my neck that I’m ‘bout to choke, there’s a part of me lost with the words you spoke, and if you’re my companion why am I lonely? What if I disappear if I float away? Would you lie to me then say you miss my face? Hell, if you’re my companion, my one and only, Then it all comes down to you, and am I your companion too?” It’s a compelling and believable chemistry that results in one of the band’s best songs to date.
Lyrically, Martin operates best when he acts as a storyteller – bluntly specifying the minutiae of his or his characters’ lives in the verses, then casually guiding the listener into a memorable chorus. It’s no wonder that his other project, pop rock band Boys Like Girls, once teamed up with another songwriter of this nature, Taylor Swift, for the commercially-successful “Two Is Better Than One”. On Dog Years, one can hear this storytelling most clearly on the final two tracks, “UFO” and “A Postcard from the City of Angels”. Like The Night Game’s penultimate song “Coffee and Cigarettes”, “UFO” is a melancholic account of a life not lived contrasted with another’s happiness. Meanwhile, “A Postcard from the City of Angels”, is a reckoning for Johnson as he lists off everything he plans to give up (“pressed juice and health food”, “fame on the Internet”, “the endless strip of mini malls”) for some peace of mind by getting “the hell out of Los Angeles.”
This method is not foolproof, however. Johnson best conveys his message at a microscopic level than a macroscopic one. Writing in third-person is clearly doable (see 2018’s “American Nights”), but speaking for a whole population in a 31/2 minute song is a more difficult task. Case in point, “Our Generation” does offer a unique perspective on modern approaches to romance, as well as a memorable and pertinent one-liner in the chorus with “Life’s tough on a perma-vacation”. But the bridge and final verse rely on simply listing off various practices and values, romantic or otherwise (“marijuana legalization”, “fetish porn and masturbation”, “likes for likes and validation”). It’s one thing to discuss the fine details of cultural production, but without referencing who shapes those cultural values, their inclusion feels a tad cliché, and even then, it feels a bit overdone in 2021. It seems as though Martin tries to further address societal conflicts on “The Stiltwalker” by including covert audio samples of former US President Donald Trump, and referencing those who are “holding lynch-mobs for the deceased, begging for retroactive retribution, clutching electronic bazookas close in their pockets and palms”. Yet their inclusion at the start of the album – only to not be referenced in depth later on – is somewhat puzzling.
Still, the majority of Dog Years appears to be autobiographical – concerned more with how Martin navigates life and all of its curveballs, and less interested in offering a damning indictment of the root causes of collective misfortunes and societal woes. Maybe that’s the point of referencing them. He doesn’t have all the answers, but he does know what’s best for his own well-being. He “[doesn’t] need a new start, just a little change of view”. To be human is to encounter suffering and change (both good and bad). We can learn from and honor these experiences, and then take reasonable steps to correct course for our own benefit – whatever that may look like. To loosely quote my grandfather, “if all you can do is your best, then that’s good enough”. Dog Years offers a stunning soundtrack for doing so – one that inspires with its well-crafted instrumentals while honoring one’s lived experiences through its lyrics.