Within a few minutes of arriving at a Daniel Romano show, one will start noticing something you don’t see too often. Middle aged couples in embroidered western tops sip Molson Stock Ales beside 20-somethings in leather jackets and tuques. You catch dudes in Crass t-shirts navigating their way to the merch table surrounded by women in vintage dresses.
Since he started making music, Daniel Romano has excelled in a multitude of genres with a level of authenticity and proficiency that has earned him followers diverse in scenes. Classic country and punk are his most recurring influences, but when looking through his discography, it becomes clear that a chart of Romano’s music is a master class in subverting expectations. Even since his first records, he’s always zigged where others would have zagged. The album that got his indie rock band Attack in Black on Toronto’s 102.1 the Edge and into the ipods of indie rock listeners, 2007s Marriage, mixed driving guitar riffs and massive arena choruses with poetic lyrics and the occasional country flair. A few months later, practically in reaction to Marriage’s notoriety, they dropped The Curve of the Earth, an intimate, largely acoustic lo-fi record recorded in a cottage. When Attack in Black evaporated in 2010, Romano jumped into folk and country, and in 2016, when he had made a name for himself in the American country scene and earned himself a spot on Nashville label New West Records, he dropped Mosey, a 60s throwback that mixes elements of French pop, rock, and early 70s Dylan.
Romano disregards what people expect of him and writes the music that he needs to write at that time. Each record is like a test of his fans’ loyalty, and to the casual listener, he’s an erratic and challenging songwriter, and his new album, Finally Free, might be one of his most challenging yet. Poetry-driven and dressed in 60s psych-folk, Finally Free’s rich imagery, sprawling song structure and minimal instrumentation requires several listens to piece together after coming off his latest works, especially the more straightforward rock of Nerveless (his second of three solo albums in 2018). This also only comes a couple of weeks after finishing touring with his punk band Ancient Shapes, performing tracks from their 2017 record Silent Rave.
Genre and style are secondary because beyond being a songwriter, Romano is a storyteller and a poet. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter. He doesn’t make music about his personal experiences, instead using the iconography and musical styling of various genres to shape his words. For his second record, 2011’s Sleep Beneath the Willow, he absorbed the spirit of old country to shape his stories. Songs like “Time Forgot (To Change My Heart)” might not have happened if he wasn’t channeling artists like George Jones or Merle Haggard. You won’t get consistent style from Romano because he’s not wired that way. He doesn’t get nostalgic for older material (for the few people waiting out for an Attack in Black reunion, you’re going to have to settle for the recordings), and he isn’t swayed by trends or the directions of his contemporaries.
This all culminates in his live shows, which are often equally surprising. Walking to Lee’s Palace in Toronto on November 30th to celebrate the release of Finally Free, I tried to imagine what he would play. He’s never been one to settle on a specific performance style or even look. I’ve seen him perform in all denim with a Stetson, knit sweaters and corduroy pants, a full nudie suit, and the occasional turtleneck and mod haircut. Sometimes he’ll play a full hour of songs back-to-back, rarely pausing to say a word, and sometimes he’ll pick and choose as he goes, occasionally stopping to listen to the audience or read a poem off his phone. Sometimes he’ll completely reinvent classic tunes to fit a new style, occasionally making them barely recognizable. If you love a specific song he wrote eight years ago, he probably won’t play it, but stay on your toes, though, and you might just get a new favorite out of it.
Daniel Romano isn’t an artist who makes music everyone will follow, and he seems perfectly content with that. Sometimes he’ll make music that will immediately catch you, and sometimes it’ll be challenging. If you can accept that a phase for Romano is exactly that, and that it’s fleeting and uniquely beautiful, his songs and poetry will always be electric.