[1 April 2001]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Writing about music is a fool’s game—it’s hard to admit, but the aspects of music that cause it to affect us so much are essentially indescribable. Why the best music hits us so hard can’t be pinned down through genre names, adjectives or hyperbole, no matter how many of them you’re armed with or how comfortable you are with dispensing them.
In the simplest terms, Mark Mulcahy is a singer/songwriter of the rock/pop variety. He spent some years playing in a great, melodic rock band called Miracle Legion, spent some more with the sunnier rock outfit Polaris, and has now released two solo albums which are too soulful and jazzy to be called rock, and which fall into that vague category known as singer-songwriter music (which means “here’s a person playing guitar, singing some songs and we don’t know what else to say”). He has a truly distinctive singing voice, which used to be compared to Michael Stipe’s and is lately often compared to either Tim Buckley’s, Jeff Buckley’s, or both, yet he doesn’t sound too much like any of them. His last solo album was called Fathering, his new one is SmileSunset, and both are released on his own independent label, Mezzontint.
These facts are good to know, but they tell you nothing about why his songs are so beautiful, or why they’ll follow you through your days, begging you to listen one more time. Yet I suppose they’re as good a place to start as any.
Mark Mulcahy’s voice has the resonance and expressiveness of the best jazz singers. You’ll find him whispering one second, growling the next, and all with an inherent sensitivity, passion and friendliness that’s hard to match. Throughout SmileSunset, he switches his vocal style mid-song, or mid-line even, and in doing so amplifies each song’s emotional impact tenfold. One choice example is the way he glides from a lowkey, confessional introduction into an empassioned plea for help on “The One Behind”, by taking his voice up an octave or so and singing less reservedly. Another is how the weird opening section of “Quiet One”, where a falsetto-ed Mulcahy sings about wanting to tie someone up, gives the bulk of the song, basically a love letter, an unsettling air.
Mulcahy’s various singing voices echo the fact that his songs depict all sorts of people’s interior dialogues: their thoughts, longings, feelings, desires, mostly directed to others, real or imagined. Each song sounds like the voice of someone obsessed—with a celebrity, a lover, an ex-lover, a stranger, an idea, etc. He is brilliant at conveying the sense that these are someone’s innermost thoughts and feelings, while retaining a sense of obliqueness and mystery; the lyrics aren’t diary entries or soliloquies, but poetic, evocative portraits of the inner workings of human brains and hearts. Which makes it apropos that the beauty of Mulcahy’s music is intangible and hard to trap, since his songs are all about personal emotions and thoughts, things that aren’t ever linear or easily explained.
Mark Mulcahy’s SmileSunset is a collection of songs from a blessedly idiosyncratic songwriter, one who isn’t aiming for a demographic or trying to sell you his personality, but who writes some songs and lets them be what they are. His songs sound like no one else’s, and have that unmappable, unteachable capacity to shoot straight through your heart that makes the best music what it is.