[20 June 2013]
Cult songwriters don’t come more revered and obscure than Mark Mulcahy. His name isn’t a household one, unless your house is the type where names like Nick Hornby, Michael Stipe, Matt Berninger, Black Francis and Thom Yorke are regularly bandied about, for all of those artists have been outspoken in their praise of Mulcahy. With Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You, the American troubadour’s fourth solo LP and first since 2005, it’s easy to see (or hear, rather) why Mulcahy is so lauded by his better known peers.
The 11-track record is as unencumbered a songwriter’s album as they come. Freewheeling thematically, it has that ramshackle feel of being recorded in a single run-through. Free of any conceit but having no shortage of charisma, the songs have a fluid flow about them, as though they’re rolling off Mulcahy’s tongue. At the same time though, the songs are crafted so tightly in both their melodic and lyrical immediacy as to be a testament to Mulcahy’s acumen as a composer.
The album fits into the alt. country realm with a catchy, pop filter, the quavering twang in Mulcahy’s voice having a Ryan Adams or Paul Westerberg flavor to it. Rollicking acoustic and electric guitar strumming dominate the work, with quirky instruments coloring the foundation, giving layers to the piece that reveal themselves on repeated listens. Short as the songs are—no cut hits the four-minute mark—they get right to the good stuff without wasting time with needless flourishes. Beyond the instrumentation, though, the true star is Mulcahy’s words: his are lyrics observant and droll, making the song’s they feature in character-driven vignettes. His tales are rife with saturnine biblical musings (the dig at Jesus’ impractical altruism in “I Taketh Away” and the swipe at Bible devotion in “He’s a Magnet”), surrealistic imagery (“She could get milk from a crowbar” in “Everybody Hustles Leo”), Aesop-like anthropomorphism (zoo animals’ prison break in “Let the Fireflies Fly Away”) and magical romanticism (“The Rabbit”). Throughout it all, his insight into character personalities is precise, and as the narrator, he is alternately sympathetic and snidely mocking in Dylanesque fashion.
While lead track “I Taketh Away” establishes the Mulcahy aesthetic with its jangly melody and sing-along refrain of “Set your own speed, man/Drive like you’ll vanish/Sometimes you can’t get around/And that’s when you smash, smash, smash”, it is the barroom shake of “Everybody Hustles Leo” where things truly take flight. With the handclapping percussion and the Lou Reed-type tale of cocaine dealing, the tune just swaggers, conjuring the image of Mulcahy and his band playing on a roadhouse’s makeshift stage. From there, the more staid “She Makes the World Turn Backwards” comes in with world-weary acoustics augmented with a dirty southwestern electric guitar tone and call-and-response vocals: “Where does it hurt?/Everywhere!/Can you stand up?/I don’t care!/Are you worried, worried?/Yes!”. Later, in “He’s a Magnet”, things get instrumentally odd as a chugging guitar rhythm duels with airy flute notes hearkening to European folk traditions.
The record’s centerpiece is “Bailing Out on Everything Again”. Toy shop beats coupled with a melody and existential sentiment seemingly borrowed from the Smiths, the cut is striking in its pensive vulnerability. So thoroughly melancholic and soaked in solitude, the recurring line of “I’ve fallen in love/With things I hate” defines it as a sad mantra. With delicate harmonized vocals doo-dooing behind Mulcahy’s voice, the song creates an interesting dichotomy, juxtaposing an old man’s reflections with a melody childlike in its simplicity. Wrapping it all up is the scathing “Where’s the Indifference Now?”, wherein Mulcahy levels his condemnations at the current state of carrion-supping, media-saturated culture. Via the scenario of a suicide, Mulcahy captures the surrounding populace’s addiction to knowing the details of such a death while criticizing their lack of insight toward the subject’s despair. When the guy was alive, you didn’t detect or didn’t care about his plight, the song says; now that he’s offed himself, your curiosity makes you feel you deserve to know every sordid facet of his last moments. It’s a harrowing indictment of modern detachment and entitled voyeurism (“We’ve got to dig, we’ve got to pry/…The devil is in the details”), the song building on acoustic strumming and eerily-floating keyboard notes toward an angry denouement. An escalating tension snaps in the form of a raging guitar solo and violin screeching as the paparazzi picks the grief from the deceased’s loved ones, Mulcahy singing—then yelling—over and over again, “There’s so much more to know/There’s so much more to know”. It’s an odd choice for a closer, as it leaves the listener with a bitter sensation in the ear. In this sense, the song exemplifies one of the few missteps of the record, that being that it feels like a collection of songs, rather than a proper album unified with true cohesion.
All in all, Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You more than conveys why Mulcahy is so beloved by his colleagues. By the same token, it’s confounding as to why, with songs of such strength, he is not a far more known artist in his own right. This album alone indicates that if any underground songwriter deserves a bigger audience and more mainstream recognition, it is Mark Mulcahy.