Listen to this track by Scottish downtempo post-rock duo, and National Film Board obsessives Boards of Canada. It’s “Dayvan Cowboy”, a track that appears on their 2005 album The Campfire Headphase as well as the follow-up EP that appeared the next year, Trans-Canada Highway.
This track was the lead song of the whole record, released a few weeks before to give listeners a taste of what was to be the band’s third release. With their previous releases, they’d become known for heavily treated instrumentation that obscured the original sounds of the instruments used to create the parts.
The result was pure analogue electronic texture that translates into warm atmospheres with a sense of spaciousness, and an ineffable nostalgia for the hazy memories of childhood. That’s their genius.
But, on this track and on many of the others, they changed their tack a bit.
For one thing, the textures here are more easily identifiable, specifically the clanging electric guitar, not a texture that had come through before. The resulting instrumental textures create a sense of foreground and background, instead of the sonic wash approach for which they’d been known. It seemed like a huge departure at the time. But, it was really more of an evolution of what was already there.
What they still manage to do is to evoke another state of mind, pointedly the one we had when we were children and the world seemed so much bigger than it does now that we’ve grown up. The video to this song helps, which includes footage from the early 1960s depicting Joe Kittiger‘s freefall from a balloon, setting the record for longest skydive (19 miles up – practically from space!). So, this song is all about childhood wonder, which hooks into a number of musical pieces that BoC had explored up until this point. This was exactly the kind of subject matter that would provide the NFB with grist for the kinds of films they would make in the early ’70s when the principles of the band – Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin– were growing up, watching television, and taking in the ambience of what was predicted to be a new world of the future, and the wonders of our planet in nature.
In many ways, despite the ravages of war, fuel shortages, and protests in the streets at the time, that period of the late ’60s and early ’70s was also one that placed a certain amount of optimism into the technology of the times. As if to mirror that optimism, Boards of Canada created much of their work using analogue equipment, which helps to account for the warmth of what you’re hearing here. But, it’s that emphasis on childlike wonder and hopefulness that makes their work so distinct. Their first few records were created during a time when a new century was just beginning, with sharper and more sophisticated technology at our disposal, but with that sense of innocence and optimism lost.
In many ways, I think this is the source of tension and darkness to be found in this song, and in others in their catalogue. Those hazy memories of childhood at a time when technology was going to save us is contrasted with the times in which it was created, when we’d come to know that we still have so far to go before the wonder and hope of the future world we’d dreamed of as children can be realized.
Boards of Canada took a break after the Trans Canada Highway EP. But, they would return with a new record in Tomorrow’s Harvest in 2013.
You can visit their site at Boardsofcanada.com to find out about it, and about other projects they’re working up.