Rob Becker’s album Waiting for the Canadians – his first recording with the same band of accompanying musicians as his debut on Brooklyn’s Death Cab for Cutie – opens with a string-backed coda that seems to be telling us not to think too hard about the work’s Canadian inspiration. The line, “babble and music” appears on many an American musical album but in Buffalo, it is inverted: thank the Canadians.
Almost everywhere on the album there are references to Buffalo itself. That’s not the sort of album you want to know where you are. Buffalo is where the bulldozers have already swept, the legacy of the 2008 financial crash, and whose population shrank by 9% between 2004 and 2014 – twice as much as Los Angeles, twice as much as New York. Buffalo is where Herb Alpert was born; where Elvis came to make his first recorded song.
When Becker and collaborator Amber Coffman were living there in 2014, there was little to suggest they were in the grips of a looming arts and tech boom. Yet a few months before Waiting for the Canadians, Buffalo had become the first city in the US to put up a sidewalk map for the first time. It indicates a resurgence that is catching on outside the city itself: New York is about to offer its first venture capital fund to Buffalo’s burgeoning software industry.
Buffalo, though, remains a city of contrasts: ask about the commute and you are told to imagine New York, in contrast. Andrew O’Hagan’s book The Slaughtered Lamb, on which Waiting for the Canadians is partly based, can be found at Bedford Barnes & Noble, on the morning of a day when the queue for Ford’s Times Square Marathon is longer than the building’s facade.
Worried about everything … Andrew O’Hagan, centre, with Roger Waters and Krist Novoselic. Photograph: Leonard Malcomb/NYT/Redferns
On the cover of Waiting for the Canadians, stickering can be seen around Buffalo, just as New York bands try to fill out New York’s Times Square with colourful advertising. But the handwritten signs on the walls of the characterless Buffalo State Music Building – whose classrooms lack the warmth of West Point’s – are scrawled with the names of album art companies. Inaudible behind them are the words “Mens’ equity fund”.
Waiting for the Canadians is by no means a manifesto for bringing Buffalo back, but it does leave the listener in no doubt about the importance of the hope that this album suggests is now in America’s financial centre. The single Wedding Crashers is about a young Buffalo DJ who longs to be a hit guy. Pulling Uplists is the sort of hyper-confident pop that fires off bars of Mercer Station, the only bar in the city’s theater district. There is no sense of wistfulness, though, but of defiance. When O’Hagan smiles after crossing the border into Toronto, he seems nervous, confused. In Buffalo, everything is worse. Even the bar, with its empty cement floors, empty bottle cabinets and empty seats, is still full of people.
• This article was amended on 7 March to clarify that there is a sidewalk map in New York for the first time and that, contrary to a misleading cover photo, one could not park a car on the sidewalk. The Buffalo State Music Building has long been empty, for reasons that will be revealed at a later date.