Airdrie, Alberta, is a small city of about 43,000 in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. On its outskirts lives Art Bergmann, who enjoys a spectacular view of the Rockies, and the sweeping vistas of the Prairie. Fitting real estate for an enduring outsider, who for 40 years has taken a rebel stance and held to it.
Long lauded as one of the original punk influences of the ‘70s, and an equally mark-making figure in alternative rock in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Bergmann’s current album The Apostate draws from all that and more, in crafting his best-yet collection of songs – and first full-length recording in 18 years. It says a lot about an artist’s persistence and integrity when his prime work is done at age 63; Bergmann is happy about that, as are critics, and the Polaris Music Prize large jury, who long-listed The Apostate in 2016.
It’s not just the incisive commentary on subjects such as rape culture, the abuse of indigenous peoples, environmental issues, and the oppressive nature of religion, which gives The Apostate its clout. The music wrapped around the message is very eclectic, and miles away from Bergmann’s punk bête noire roots. “I started writing these songs as I was finishing up Songs for the Underclass,” says Bergmann. “I was on a tear, coming up with concepts, melodies. I wanted to write an album [where] you couldn’t tell what era songs were from, or what genre, something that would last.”
The Apostate is that album. Lyrically, it holds some of Bergmann’s most searing lyrics and dystopic observations, but also some of his most tender and shocking. The cages he rattles are being shaken by a man with insights gleaned from an immersion in the fields of history, anthropology and paleontology, that started when he first moved to Airdrie.
Such material suggests a match with the explosive sounds of Bergmann’s punk past, but he ups the emotional ante by juxtaposing rejectionist lyrics and inclusive music, coaxing many levels of meaning from the material. The musical resonances include desert and prairie sounds: Tuareg blues from North Africa, percussion references from Pakistan and India, the swirling patterns of Dervish music, and haunted, wind-whipped Americana landscapes.
“I wanted to expand my subject matter to more universal themes than I was concerned with in my early years in Vancouver and Toronto,” says Bergmann. “I wanted this music to get a wide hearing, so I toned down the abrasion and made it more soothing. ‘Cassandra’ is a good example; I put that out as a single, at the insistence of my wife and sister. Coming at a time when the vanished indigenous women was an issue, we felt it was the right time to put it out. That it also coincided with the verdict in the Ghomeshi case was definitely not planned. I’d written ‘Cassandra’ three years before,” he says of his re-working of the classic Greek myth of Cassandra, who was sexually abused by Apollo in order to discredit her.
“In terms of songwriting technique, for me, it starts out with, ‘What will it take to get to where I want it to be?’”
Bergmann is adamant that while the songs on The Apostate may share themes and attitudes, each is a stand-alone, layered with meaning and suggestion. “The songs start out as pages and pages of notes to be honed down, cutting away at the obvious, paring it down to where I know I’ve got it,” he says. “In terms of songwriting technique, for me, it starts out with, ‘What will it take to get to where I want it to be?’”
The collection’s tear-jerker is “The Legend of Bobby Bird,” a wrenching tale of a young Indigenous boy who preferred to take his chances alone in the wild rather than live in a residential school, and ended up freezing to death. His remains sat unidentified for 30 years, but were finally discovered in 2009. “There were so many kids who disappeared and were never seen again, who chose nature over staying in those prisons,” says Bergmann. “I spent time with Bobby Bird’s family, asking their permission, because I know about pain and with his family, the pain is still fresh.”
Bergmann does indeed know about pain; in recent years, he’s been stricken with severe osteoarthritis, and had to undergo surgery four years ago to put titanium around his spine to prevent him from becoming a paraplegic. Still, he’s not going gently into that good night, continuing to rail against injustice and false belief.
Given the album’s title, one wonders what social, political or religious beliefs Bergmann-the-apostate is rejecting. He chuckles, and says, “I’m a complete traitor to all the beliefs, I reject just about everything,” as suggested in the lyrics to his song “Atheist Prayer”: “What will it take/ to crush your belief/ in your mistake/ you’re the God you create…”
Bergmann would love to take his message on the road with a band, but might not be able to manage it. “I wish I were touring, but it’s too expensive for me,” he says. “I can do the songs acoustically, but I really miss the band format, the explosiveness, the power. I’ve got a good little label, Weewerk, and I’ve got a social media presence, but it seems like it comes down to touring. I’d like to have another kick at the can before I give up the ghost. We’ll see.”
Meanwhile, Bergmann’s working on new material, with three or four songs in the pipeline and a bunch of ideas on the back burner. He promises that it’ll be quite different from The Apostate. With his ongoing creative flow, could he ever foresee a time when he isn’t driven to write songs? “The songwriting comes and goes,” he says. “How and why is a mystery. I’ve had dry periods when it does cross your mind, but I’ve always come out of them and [started] writing again. The last time I had one, the fact [that] people were interested in me again, in hearing the old songs again, that got me back to writing new songs.”