Continuing our series in which Guardian and Observer writers pick their favourite albums ? with a view you might do the same ? Tim Jonze wets himself at the prospect of the Hidden Cameras
The Smell of Our Own opens, as perhaps more albums should consider doing, with a tune about building a staircase to heaven made out of frozen pee. It ends with a tender love song about being wee-ed on by another man ("A warm wet yellow breeze," as lead singer and songwriter Joel Gibb puts it).
This album of "gay church folk music" played by a collective of Canadian multi-instrumentalists, isn't what I pictured becoming my Favourite Album of All Time. I had a heartbreak masterpiece such as Spirtualized's Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space pencilled in for that, or an important, soulful address such as Marvin Gaye's astonishing What's Going On. Yet if we're measuring "favourite" by what I've played and loved the most (and really, how else should we measure it?), then there is no competition ? it's eight years since I first cast my ears over this rapturous record and still barely a week goes by where I don't feel the urge ? no, more than that, the need ? to play it.
I imagine most records are forged as favourites during our teenage years, but I first heard The Smell of Our Own as a 23-year-old rookie journo during an initial visit to the NME offices. Knocked sideways, I momentarily thought the staff might have a huge stash of such heavenly music, greedily kept aside for their own private consumption while they went about their business peddling Hot Hot Heat to an unsuspecting public. It was an assumption that lasted approximately 42 minutes before the record ended and someone got up and put on the Cooper Temple Clause instead. Clearly, The Smell of Our Own was a true one-off.
Is Joel Gibb one of the greatest songwriters ever? Certainly he's one of the most underrated, his melodies devastatingly simple ? Shame, a kind of It's a Sin for the indie generation, doesn't even bother changing chord until the chorus ? yet also devastatingly affecting. But I love Gibb's voice too, the way it wavers on Boys of Melody as he sings "Far, out at sea-e-e-e-e", the way it bristles with pent-up horn as he snarls about "the sweat from the chest of a man in a leather uniform". It's a voice that deserves the glorious arrangements built around it: the opening seconds of Golden Streams alone crams in church organ, harps and choirs, whereas Owen Pallett's string arrangements conjure up an entering-the-pearly-gates sound befitting of a band who frequently played gigs in churches.
The focal point for the few journalists who wrote about them at the time, however, was neither the melodies nor the arrangements, but the way the tell-all tales of graphic sex, bodily stenches and escaping fluids rubbed up against such seraphic sounds. Smells Like Happiness talks of the odour of "old cum on the rug men walk their dirty feet on". Ban Marriage, an attack on the gay community's desire to join straights in signing up to an outdated institution, has a protaganist who's late for his wedding because he's been "fingering foreign dirty holes in the dark".
I was no doubt guilty of concentrating on these lurid lyrics myself, yet for me the words are more sideshow than main event. Sure, they can be moving, they can be funny, and they discuss things that rarely enter the pop lexicon with a thrilling candour. But they're not what I truly love about The Smell of Our Own. In fact, you could argue that, lyrically, this album was never written for someone like me at all ? I'm boringly straight and, even more boringly, I defied the radical ban marriage sentiment by, er, getting married. I fingered no dirty holes, foreign or otherwise, on my way to the church and I have never, to the best of my knowledge, built a staircase to heaven using my frozen pee.
This in itself is a mark of The Smell of Our Own's perfection ? the way it makes its case not with NSFW lyrics but through the art of simple but devastating songwriting. The emotions Gibb conveys ? from shame and sorrow to tenderness and hope ? are delivered powerfully enough to overcome mere words. Far from shock merchants dealing in smut, what really strikes you about The Smell of Our Own is that this is music at its most affecting. It's for that reason I use this album almost as a recreational drug; soothing troubles during the bad times, providing elation during the good. Gibb may be singing very much about his own world, but listening to him do so can take you right out of yours.
Or you could simply star rate it, or add it to one of your album lists. There are more than 3m new pages for you to explore as well as 600,000-plus artists' pages ? so if, for example, you prefer to get your kicks with the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs or reckon that, when it comes to Canadian bands, Arcade Fire's debut album knocks this record into a cocked hat, then find their albums and get to work ...