In the City of the Mind

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Sam Roberts is a rock-star sophisticate. At home in Montreal, he often listens to classical music. (He has played violin since he was 4.) He looks good on the cover of men's magazines, even with his trademark scruffy hair and beard. And the Juno-winning singer-songwriter, whose last album, We Were Born in a Flame, went platinum in Canada, talks intelligently about his music's purpose. He tries to capture "human ideas and human failings," he says--and casually uses words like "destitute" when talking about his themes. "I love albums," he says, because he feels they represent a "complete thought."

The big thinking behind the 10 songs on Roberts' latest release, Chemical City, out on Tuesday, is urban decay. If that sounds heavy, fear not: the CD features much of the cool, '70s-style guitar work fans will remember from Roberts' last album and the smash single of 2002, Brother Down. Chemical City is great summer music: catchy, energetic, never abrasive.

The Gate, the psychedelic opening track (and the odd choice for the album's first single), sets up the collection, describing a traveler's arrival at a strange and soulless city after a long voyage. From there, Roberts says, songs zoom in and out from general attributes of the imaginary (but representative) city to specific incidents that take place there. "I think the whole idea of this record is travel," he says.

There are few people more qualified than Roberts, 31, to write such an album. A self-described "wandering spirit," he is a compulsive traveler. For years before he made it big, he worked flexible jobs in Montreal--waiting tables, delivering furniture--to fund trips around the world. He visited Indonesia and Peru, and went to Africa a couple of times. (His parents are South African.) He became intrigued by what he terms the "predictable cycle" of traveling: being awestruck, comparing places with one another, getting homesick.

For Chemical City Roberts visited Mauritius and South Africa before settling down to work with his band in Australia (because, he says, it was about as far from home as he could get). They made the album in New South Wales, recording in an old church, with Roberts writing many of the songs while sitting at the edge of macadamia and coffee plantations.

Bridge to Nowhere, the album's best bet for a big hit, explores the lives of the directionless and dissatisfied. With his knack for storytelling, Roberts takes after iconic singer-songwriters like John Lennon and Bob Dylan, whom he credits as his influences. "I'm trying to make my contribution to the great tradition of rock 'n' roll," he says, adding that it's a "lofty goal." He's already proved himself sharper than most.