Midlake's third album follows up the conceptual grandeur of their last with a darker and more introspective sound. The mellow folky drone of this album builds with each song, countering the lonely wilderness it evokes.
Some people might be disappointed with Midlake's follow up to their acclaimed second album, The Trials of Van Occupanther. That concept album had stellar songs and a grand yet perhaps silly narrative that brought it all together in a nice mellow Fleetwood Mac feel. The Courage of Others comparatively is a downer. It's more difficult to get into. The melodies don't overwhelm you -- in fact, each song blends together under Tim Smith's folky chant. But the similar tone that overtakes each song builds on you as you listen making this album powerful in a different way than Occupanther.
Where Occupanther had a hopeful wandering feel -- packed as it was with songs about traveling through the mountains -- this album is more contained and reflective. But the hopefulness of the last album does dissipate, pointing the way for the gloominess of The Courage of Others. The most obvious comparisons are the light folk-rock bands of the '70s, but without a sunny disposition. These songs give you a coming-down in the early morning feeling reminiscent of the mellow sounds of that decade. There is definitely something narcoleptic about this album, but it works. The repetitious rhythm is like the lingering rhythm of a day of hiking while stroking your beard as you try to fall asleep in a tent in the mountains. Midlake went smaller in scale, a kind of risk to take after Occupanther -- this is not their Tusk. But that smaller scale also makes the album more personal. Midlake doesn't up the ante with The Courage of Others, but they show a contemplative side that still makes a strong album.
The album consistently stays in the same mood and same tempo. Each song alternates from a hushed but nicely layered vocal over acoustic guitars touched with a bit of lead into a chorus that turns on some guitar distortion. The vocals never leave the range of mellowness, even in these slightly harder parts. But the switch-up in guitar sound provides needed texture to the album, as if the campfire singalong gets momentarily caught up in a quick blaze of flame. When the fuzzy electric guitar comes in to pick the song up, there is a reminder of the psychedelic roots of the band, but the fuzz blends in with the layers of acoustic guitar and the troubadour flutes. It's a good touch. This heavy side makes sure the '70s singer-songwriter vibe never gets too mellow.
What is missing seems to be the ambition of the last album, mostly seen in the concept and the larger scale of instrumentation. The synths have been demoted. Does Midlake want to limit the influence of electric instruments on this album? Are they trying to return to some woodsy innocence? All the lyrics seem to point at the impossibility of this. It's precisely this paradox that makes this album successful in a different way from The Trials of Van Occupanther. Midlake is more than just a band wearing its influences on its sleeve. They are folkies of the 21st century taking on a different perspective than their earlier counterparts. This album is about being cut off from something essential, not a return to nature. Where Occupanther's storytelling often weakened the album, trying to take the listener back to what seemed like a 19th century failed frontier romance, this album is more introspective. And it's a dark place inside.
Tim Smith's vocals set the tone with lyrics that describe a lonely man who is disappointed and yearning for something in nature, in others, that is out of reach, as we hear in "Winter Dies", one of the strongest tracks that most successfully blends the soft and the hard qualities of the album's sound. This melancholy drives songs like "The Core of Nature" and the title track, which was apparently written at the time of recording Occupanther. Perhaps this isolation -- felt by the man who doesn't marry his love in the previous album -- is what led to the wood cabin hermit feel of the new album, as if these songs were really just sung by one man with a guitar imagining the swirling accompaniment of the occasional flute and electric fuzz guitar surrounding him at the right moments.