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  • Mohamed Sadik

Dan Mangan and the Search for Musical Solace

The raw, stripped-down music of singer-songwriter Dan Mangan has an emotional breadth that connects with audiences the world over. Mohamed Sadik recounts his discovery of the album Nice, Nice, Very Nice and the intimate power of Mangan’s live performances.

Dan Mangan The Pittsburgher
Illustration: The Pittsburgher / Detail: Thief (2020, Arts & Crafts) album cover

I stumbled upon the album Nice, Nice, Very Nice by Dan Mangan on the subway commute to my first day of college. At that moment, I was nervous and needed to get out of my head, so I added the album to my collection and off it went into the I Think I Like This pile, stored away for a rainy day. Due to the meteorological realities of New England, there was no shortage of rainy days and the album slowly crept its way into my everyday life. The raspy voice and poetic lyricism of the Vancouver-based singer-songwriter became the perfect backdrop for my next four years. That album scored the scenes that defined my first year of college: running on a crowded sidewalk to catch a train, perfectly timed to the beat of “Sold” as I weaved past bodies left and right; strolling through tree-lined streets watching the autumn leaves fall into reflective puddles to “Basket.” But then Mangan found a new way into my life.

As a film student, I was watching whatever I could get my hands on, which led me to Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014). I enjoyed the movie immensely, though the thing that struck me most was the music. There was a familiarity to the score, and as the credits rolled it was revealed to be the work of Mangan. The soundtrack has a way of mirroring the environments of the film: hearing Mangan’s soft voice and guitar on “Jude” as Hector traverses the snowy mountains of the Himalayas; watching Hector drive down the long straight roads of the South African savanna as Mangan belts out the opening words of “Vessel” that seemingly stretch out into the horizon. He finds a way to enhance these various adventures and locations with his uplifting score. It resonated with me because what Mangan brought to the film is exactly the same thing that he brought into my life, a soundtrack for adventuring, learning new things, and exploring destinations that are far from home. Hector learned about himself to the work of Mangan in the same way I did. I quickly integrated the film’s soundtrack, which became something of an earworm, into my life and Dan Mangan’s influence and presence grew. No longer was he something I reached for; he was always just there.

Now having encountered Mangan’s music as both song and soundtrack, I was hooked. Everything he did felt like something I wanted to be a part of, but nothing more than “So Much For Everyone.” I came across a video of a live performance of the song, outdoors on a Toronto sidewalk during a hot summer evening. The video has a sense of peace – an ease of being – that travelled from that day in Toronto in 2011 straight into my apartment six years later. Illuminated by golden streetlights and drenched in sweat, Mangan belts the lyrics: “As much as I’d like to go / To places I’ve never known / Scared shitless to leave home / And I don’t want to go alone.” As someone who struggles with a fear of the future, it felt like he was talking to me personally – I felt seen. I’ve had to leave home enough times to lose count, but my fears were never quelled. Mangan delivers these lines emphatically, like he is making himself seem bigger than his fears. I feel like he is singing for me, acting as the barrier between me and my worries, while also showing me that I, too, can become bigger than my fears. Not only did watching this confirm that he sounds incredible live, but it made him a real person to me. Even now, after having lived in the States for almost a decade, I still struggle with going to concerts. Concerts were not a part of my life growing up in Egypt; people who existed on my phone and T.V. had a tendency to stay that way. Watching that performance filled me with hope and excitement at the prospect of getting to one day experience it for myself.

March 13th, 2019 was the night I never truly thought was going to happen. I remember being anxious when purchasing the tickets, but that was nothing compared to how I felt when I arrived at the venue. I managed to find the room after getting lost twice and falling victim to the stink eye of countless Berklee College of Music students while fumbling through their campus. It was a narrow venue with a merchandise table on one side, a stage on the other. As people began to trickle in, I hugged the walls, nervous of occupying the empty space near the stage. However, a simple nudge from my girlfriend gave me enough courage to take a place at the front. The show started and, with every thumping beat courtesy of the opening act, the realization that this was actually happening washed over me. Then the lights dimmed. As Dan Mangan came out on stage, he gestured towards the people still sitting on the fringes, offering them a place in the crowd. The guitar intro to “Troubled Mind” filled the room, and I began to buzz with excitement. He went on to play a mix of fan favorites and songs off of his then-new record, More or Less. After an hour of dancing and singing, Mangan revealed he was working without a setlist and encouraged the crowd to make suggestions. Even though it was an intimate crowd of no more than 70 people, I took solace in the fact that my voice could get muddled in the crowd as I shouted, “Jude!” – my favorite song from the soundtrack to Hector and the Search for Happiness. However my heart lurched into my throat as soon as he responded, “Jude? I haven’t played that one in a while.”

There was an interactiveness that I never expected to experience myself. So much of the concert felt like a blur in the best possible way and I didn’t want it to end. Even though I knew what the last song was going to be, I was still caught off guard by my own excitement to hear “So Much for Everyone.” Mangan walked right off the stage and entered the middle of the crowd, placing down a chair to stand on. He was carrying a light fixture – a long rod supporting the wide and cumbersome blue light affixed to its top – and passed it off to one of the audience members. The house lights slowly darkened, leaving only that war hammer of light, carried by the audience and towering over us all. With the cool light hitting the ceiling and coloring our faces, Mangan explained a set of instructions for us. He sang the basic chord progression of the song, waving everyone to join in. Once he believed that the audience had it down, he told us to start singing at his signal – then off he went. As we patiently waited for our part, hanging on every word that was sung, Mangan finally stretched his arm in the air signaling the end of the first verse. We jumped into the song with the chord progression we were taught and an electricity filled the air, surging through me; I had become a part of something bigger. I finally got to be on that sidewalk in Toronto.

Moments and memories stick to people like glue, forever shaping them. About a month after that concert, I graduated from college. I was having an identity crisis, questioning every decision that had led me to that point. It was safe to say I was lost, wandering through a maze built of my own anxiety. If that concert taught me anything, it's that I am not alone, that there are people out there wandering through their own mazes. I was in that room with all those people, holding the melody of Mangan’s song, and life became manageably, beautifully simple. With what's going on in the world today, I can't help but feel how desperately we all need a little simplicity. This pocket of calm helped me cope with all that was going on in my life, and gave me the ability to process what was yet to come. Even though at the end of the day I am human and the weight of this world sometimes gets the better of me, I find myself thankful that this moment is glued to me. ▲

Mohamed Sadik is an Emerson College graduate with a degree in Visual Media Arts. On his quest to one day be a show-runner, he is often distracted by literally anything related to space.

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