2009 is shaping up to be the year of pop/rock parsimony. Many of the creative departures one might have anticipated in this time of sociopolitical uncertainty have failed to appear. This lack of adventure is not necessarily a barrier to greatness, though it might add up to frustrated expectations surrounding much of the year’s strongest work so far. So Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion has great tunes, but what of the safe sheen that surrounds them? And Bromst is triumphant, but aren’t those now-familiar chord progressions less novel than they were on Dan Deacon’s previous LP? Where is the pioneering soundtrack to our strange cultural frontiers? These nagging questions naturally extend to a larger discussion: Is pop music’s role to provide a nostalgic retreat from the gapes and upheavals of the world around us or to push us forward into unrealized resourcefulness? Does the best music accomplish all of this at once? And if it hits a sweet spot for the listener, does that quality trump the big discussion altogether? With the timeless My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura chooses all of the above.
The Camera Obscura/Belle & Sebastian comparison is at this point both tired and increasingly irrelevant. Though to give that dying horse a final trot for the sake of context, one could see Camera Obscura’s last effort Let’s Get Out of This Country as its Dear Catastrophe Waitress moment. It found the band no less indebted to its influences, yet strengthened by a robust new confidence. Whereas producer Trevor Horn gave Dear Catastrophe Waitress its jolt, the Bear Quartet’s Jari Haapalainen served that role on the organ-happy Let’s Get Out of This Country. Camera Obscura continues in a similarly spirited direction with his collaboration on My Maudlin Career. The organ might be a bit more in the background this time, replaced up front by a sonorous drum kit, but the arrangements are as pleasing and tastefully executed as ever. In fact, the consistency of the production here makes some of the last album sound transitional by comparison. My Maudlin Career is expertly sequenced, with a fluidity that credibly draws together folk, girl-group, country and western, doo-wop, and Northern soul sounds as a foundation for Tracyanne Campbell’s wistful songs, most of which concern the bliss and ache of relationships.
Campbell’s lyrics, like the cohesive instrumentation and production, are guided by a central impulse but remain varied and compelling. The main character in these songs is “you”. The singer’s first-person perspective does not necessarily make her the “me” to the “you”, but her often-confessional lyrics and delivery suggest a personal, emotional investment in these romantic tales. The key to the band’s realization of this material is that it never gets so precious as to shut “us”, the listeners, out of the equation. Nor does the album waste any time establishing its premise, which let’s face it, is a continuation of a career’s worth of confessions from Campbell’s character(s). In the first verse of “French Navy”, she is in a library looking for inspiration and in no time has met her sailor love “by the moon on a silvery lake”. It is not long before she’s rhyming the “oooh”, the “you”, and the “thing that you do” in her expression of quixotic love.
“The Sweetest Thing” echoes the vocal harmony of “A Sister’s Social Agony” from 2004’s Underachievers Please Try Harder but picks up the tempo and intensifies the character’s longing as she threatens to “trade [her] mother” and “walk a hundred miles” to see and hear her singing object of affection. The speed with which this moment arrives is refreshing, as the song fully delivers in both sound (high test sugary pop) and story (high stakes crush) all within the second track rather than the climax of the album. This set of songs is strong enough to seemingly front-load the album with a number like “The Sweetest Thing” and still not disappoint later in the sequence.
Uncertainty is the subject of “You Told a Lie”, which analyzes a relationship through an utterance about the character’s eyes (“the coldest blue”) and the insecurity that statement creates. The repeated phrase “I’m stuck with them / and they’re stuck on you” is a perfect distillation of a relationship either in earliest bloom or already in gridlock. The following number “Away With Murder” is perhaps the wearier sequel of “You Told a Lie”, but it could also tell a different story altogether. Throughout the album, Campbell achieves this degree of ambiguity in the individual components even as they form such a harmonious whole. Only “James” falters in this respect, because it is suddenly too specific and not strong enough a story-song to draw us in. Ballad “Careless Love” corrects the course with its sweeping, weeping strings and the proper return of the organ. It is arguably the most involved song on the album, with distinctive playing on everyone’s part, from the drums to the guitar to the strings and backing vocalists. The song’s untouchable crescendos represent new heights for Camera Obscura as a band.
Campbell might be at the front of the group, but the magic of Camera Obscura is found in the whole palette. Consider the margins of Campbell’s voice, which has a somewhat nasal quality. The band complements her delivery in a way that elevates her singing rather than exposes its limitations. Every player excels in his or her own way, and the band has matured into a stunningly proficient act. Yet this self-awareness and playing to strengths is nothing new. They’ve always been evident, even in the group’s performative album titles. Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi was the statement of intent. Underachievers Please Try Harder was the breakout. Let’s Get Out of This Country was the refusal to languish, and now My Maudlin Career is the reflective summation.
The band’s finest work, My Maudlin Career continues the pop rush we’ve come to expect from Camera Obscura but also develops the band’s sound and identity in significant ways. While the Connie Francis and Phil Spector influences are still a sublime part of the comforting oldies scene the band faithfully preserves, the growth in songwriting, emotional honesty and increasingly sophisticated production are all forward-looking. The result is the best thing of its sort since the Heavy Blinkers’ The Night and I Are Still So Young and one of this difficult year’s most relevant albums.