The Mezzotint Label/Mark Mulcahy
Across the last decade it’s been a time of personal tumult and musical magic for Mark Mulcahy. The death of his wife (in 2008) has meant that any and all musical releases are instantly read as a form of public grieving.
There was the brilliant pick-yourself-back-up Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You – which sounds like the finest Posies/Westerburg/Marshall Crenshaw collab you could imagine (and what power-pop fan isn’t always imagining that?). Then, in and around another solo album Mulcahy re-formed both of his cult-bands, Polaris and Miracle Legion. Legion counts amongst its hardcore fans both Michael Stipe and Thom Yorke. Mulcahy songs are so well written they stay there. Like Joe Jackson songs. Nick Hornby writes essays about them. They are often the distinctly American versions of the sorts of songs Kevin Rowland inhabits.
So here we are with The Gus – yet another dB’s-meets-Go-Betweens-via-Raspberries collection of effortless jangle-pop that features loose-flowing/tightly-composed songs. The type of songs that feel like short-stories or dreams, little streams of consciousness (Wicked World) that are deceptively drawn. Short wee chamber pieces of perfect pop that are smartly dressed with cellos and BVs but give off the spirit of some of Jonathan Richman’s herky-jerky near-spontaneity.
As our opener, Wicked World, drifts into place with moments of sweet harmonica and a guitar line or lick that isn’t a million miles from mid-80s Paul Kelly I think of Peter Perrett’s late-blooming solo debut. Some of that soft-snarl is still there in the curl of Daisy Marie, but the magic of Marshall Crenshaw’s way with a line – both lyrically and melodically – seems like the driver here. Such a charming wee song.
That combination – lyrics and melody – creates oodles of narrative for this collection of songs. Smart, literate pop songs from an underrated, understated master – yes, fans will know this already and be all but expecting them, but The Gus could be the gateway to a world for anyone unfamiliar. Producer Mark Seedorf must also take a bow, he allows each tune to strut and fret its few moments on the stage (always in and of its own world) and the shimmer and shine of Taking Baby Steps is just one example of what feels like the best kind of throwback to the mid-90s post-grunge obsession with the clean, hook-filled 60s-inspired pop songwriting.
Later For The Box feels like Squeeze, I Won’t Tell Anyone But You has the sorts of lines Elvis Costello used to trot out on nearly every song (“I tried optimism for a long, long time/But I couldn’t really relate to what it is” / “And pessimism is no good, it’s its own religion” and then later, deliciously, “The water you’ve led your horse to won’t do nothing but make him wish that he’d been born a fish”) and then you remember the grief and stoicism of Mulcahy’s last decade. Even if he’s not directly addressing it you can’t help but ponder it, how it has to be supplying him with so many of his best songs, his best lines, his only hope/s…
There’s post-Dylan beatifics (People: Beware) and Mr. Bell sounds like the sort of song George Harrison would put into the world if he was here today.
So many gorgeous, clever, wonderful moments. Within each and every song.
And then the album’s three final songs arrive – they might be the very best moments. Hard to fathom, joyous to contemplate.
Happy Boat is political, thoughtful, quietly seething – but all of that is disguised by just a brilliantly composed, arranged, devised song that features Mulcahy singing in a lower register, sounding weary, sounding like Wilco. Indeed it would not be out of place on anything Tweedy has every offered. But actually it’s a Randy Newman-level of deception here as Mulcahy imagines the mindset of Trump supporters. There’s also a J. Mascis cameo – you’d be forgiven for not spotting it, particularly since it’s his second of three appearances, his drone of a mini-solo is like a wee burst of punctuation on the earlier I Won’t Tell Anyone But You but is also more like a disguised walk-on than any featured cameo.
Another hint of The Beatles (a bit like one of those times when Paul McCartney would try his best to write a John Lennon Song) arrives with A Long Time Ago – a sardonic, mourning piece of chamber pop and then we close with What If I Go Off With Bob? What a brilliant record-closer. It’s funny, spiked, and after passing the audition we finally get to hear the Mascis we know and love as he first chugs along for the ride – then pierces the sides of the tune with his (finally totally recognisable) guitar.
These are little messages in bottles, little musical short stories. Little pieces of charm – brilliant connections, so perfectly realised. If you’re a Mulcahy fan you’ll be delighted to hear one of his best ever sets of songs. If you’ve never heard him before or are new enough this will have you sweeping up the back-catalogue.
One of the finest sets of songs by anyone so far this year.