It's a study in contrasts: Murray Lightburn was animated and defiant when the Dears' last album, Missiles, came out in late 2008. His internationally acclaimed Montreal band, considered one of the standard-bearers of the Canadian indie scene, had basically mutinied before that album was released. This left Lightburn and his wife and keyboardist Natalia Yanchak trying to stay calm and carry on. As a result, Missiles was a collection of songs that at times seemed scarred and painful.
Fast-forward to now: The Dears' fifth studio album, Degeneration Street, is entirely different. The band's songs, always multi-layered and cinematic in scope, are particularly vivifying this time, with upbeat and immediate choruses.
And the band is popping up everywhere, from a recent performance on The Late Show with David Letterman to strong airplay on the alt-minded CBC Radio 3. Former members, notably guitarists Patrick Krief and Robert Benvie and bassist Roberto Arquilla, have returned, replacing the temporary backup players that toured with Missiles.
So why does Lightburn look despondent over his hot water and lemon in a hotel bistro on a cold Toronto morning? With Yanchak by his side, his body language is nowhere close to the elation of Degeneration Street.
To understand his mood, you have to get into the band's tumultuous history.
First, there's the betrayal of a few years ago. Yanchak describes that period in a word: "rage." The rest of the band broke away and secretly formed a separate group without telling Lightburn and Yanchak.
Of course it was more complicated than that.
As Lightburn explains, various ex-Dears, notably Krief, Benvie and Arquilla, actually never fully left. All the members have known each other for years. The Dears had become not so much a band, but an intricate circle of working relationships. Some members had returned to work on Missiles and again on the new album.
"That's the thing that people don't really realize. The same band that played on Degeneration Street is almost the same band that played on Missiles," Lightburn says. Degeneration Street can't really be called a reunion album, and so there can't really be a celebration solely on those grounds.
The album began with Lightburn and Krief talking over beers about their typical working arrangement. Lightburn once described the Dears' set-up as him compulsively writing and recording ideas in the middle of the night and bringing those ideas to the band. "Anybody who signs up for the Dears has to know that that's what the gig is," he once said.
This time, the writing was more collaborative and more focused, Lightburn says. The group was prolific. Thirty highly usable songs were written, but the band simply stopped work at 14, enough for an album.
When Krief played his demo for the song Tiny Man, Lightburn says he was floored. "And the first time I heard Benvie's demo of Thrones [possibly the most biographical of songs on the album] I almost cried. It was amazing."
Yet the aim of the writing this time was less overtly confessional; less confined to their own individual experience. The death of their friends' young child from cancer, for instance, put a heavy stamp on some of the lyrics, Lightburn says. He and Yanchak are parents themselves; sometimes, he adds, all you want is simply to convey love and support through a song.
"This time around, we tried not to be too precious on the lyrical process. The language that the Dears speak is the language of everyday people - which is one of my favourite songs, by the way," Lightburn adds, referring to the old Sly and the Family Stone hit.
"We've left the individual ego at the door. It's a communal ego now," Yanchak adds.
The Dears gave the new material a thorough public airing before recording, performing the songs live for months, including for a stint in Mexico City where the band's fans are particularly effusive. That trip was made to give the songs some "sweat," Lightburn says.
Even though the album was made so collaboratively and has already been well received publicly, one unusually vitriolic review on the influential Pitchfork music website has momentarily spoiled the party for Lightburn. The review is an exception; most critics are praising Degeneration Street as one of the band's best works.
Yanchak calls it the result of being indefinable, being a band which remains "unclaimed" by one niche or another.
Lightburn adds: "I'll admit, I was a little bummed out [by the review] You put your child out into the world, you want everybody to love your child. And then the child gets bullied at school. It's so extreme, it's like bullying our child.
"That said, there's enough people that are taking care of the child. We've been playing this thing for over a year anyway. Everybody's heard it. Everybody can make their own decision."
The Dears begin a European tour in Berlin April 13.