[7 April 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
When you look at those two golden masks symbolizing the duality of ye old drama theatre, which one do you prefer to apply to your own life? Sure, when it comes to being entertained, the choice can be a mere coin toss. As much as we like to laugh along with a group of strangers while facing a dimly-lit stage, we are sometimes in love with our cathartic appreciation of tragedy. We actively seek out the most depressing and sometimes disturbing pieces of film, art and music in hopes that people with perceive us as “dark” or “gothic”, a validation of our profound thoughtfulness. To paraphrase Francis Dunnery, it’s hip to be angry, but what’s wrong with using art to make people happy? If we could all choose one mask to put on our lives, no one would choose the tragic one.
According to Scottish twin brothers Craig and Charlie Reid, life chooses the mask for you. “You were made to be happy / Not mired in sorrow and regret / Misery comes around enough, you don’t need to invite him / And when he leaves should grab all the joy you can get” goes one of the verses in the title track for the Proclaimers’ ninth album. Actually, the whole lyric sheet reads as a nice screed for summoning the positivity from within. I like to think that the Scots know a thing or two about misery and the self-motivation it takes to chase it off. “I don’t know why it always rains on you, Fran [Healy],” my friend said to me as we consumed beers in a bar while Travis’ early hit was playing on the sound system. Could be because he’s from Scotland, I wanted to say.
Even when treading closer to a more negative territory, the Proclaimers just sort of fling their words around in a light-hearted melody exercise. The bare-bones duet of the acoustic guitar and a tambourine (or knee slap) being long gone from their sound, the Reid brothers hold strong to the ballad, shanty and show tune templates for their songs even when they are surrounded by piano, drums, a mandolin, a violin and a cello. The full-band treatment to “Wherever You Roam”, a bittersweet open letter to children as they grow up and leave the nest, would close to swallowed the sentiment if you weren’t paying attention to the lyrics; “sometimes this life’s unkind / It can take your mind”.
Musically speaking, the Proclaimers have long since taken their idea of pop to steer their songs back to an era where a record could be absolutely stuffed with brainworms. Much like their work in the past, the overall impression one gleans from the songs on Like Comedy has less to do with sticky pop music and more to do with the Reid twins making an earnest bid for that great songbook in the sky, right alongside Tin Pan Alley and tone poems that depict the old countries of yore ( They even want to sing to the ladies “in Sam Cook’s voice)”. And I must say they pull the whole thing off quite well. It will take a long time for me to get these songs out of my head. Even the naked piano and acoustic guitar agnostic waltz of “I Think That’s What I Believe” has an easy magnetic pull to it. Even when Craig uses the word “grief” to describe the residual effects of every dogma that has dogged Europe throughout time, it’s done with little effort. “Dance With Me” may be fluff romanticism, but it sounds too much like the Everly Brothers to be so easily dismissed.
Slapping a happy face on something is a form of escapism, and the Proclaimers know it. “We’ve spoken the truth for so long we need lies” they sing over the snappy rolling piano on “Whatever You’ve Got”. But denial is just one part of the need for comedy. It’s also the natural progression of things. I’ll let the Reid brothers explain it as I leave you with the chorus of the title track:
When you lose your appetite for self-destruction
You can stop viewing life as tragedy
Give it a few more years and look from this angle
Where it looks more and more and more like comedy.