Mark Mulcahy: The Possum in the Driveway

With only the second release after his wife’s tragic passing in 2008, Mark Mulcahy manages to make the most of his time spent moving forward.

Mark Mulcahy

The Possum in the Driveway

Label: Mezzotint
US Release Date: 2017-04-28
UK Release Date: 2017-04-28

Mark Mulcahy has long been an idiosyncratic songwriting force. Having cut his teeth in the early years of the college rock 1980s underground with Miracle Legion and come to greater public attention through The Adventures of Pete and Pete with Polaris in the 1990s, he’s been on the musical radar for some four decades at this point. And yet he remains something of an underappreciated, unrecognized talent with an approach to song structure and storytelling all his own. Over the course of some half a dozen solo records, Mulcahy has quietly amassed one of the more compelling bodies of work with his often personal, introspective lyrics and quietly contained emotionality with an inimitably nuanced vocal presence.

Beginning with 1997’s Fathering, Mulcahy began to gradually move away from the shimmering jangle pop of both Miracle Legion and Polaris into something a bit darker, even more melancholy and lyrically engaging. The sheer breadth of his influence on other musicians came to the fore with the 2009 compilation Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy, released a year after the unexpected, tragic passing of his wife, Melissa. Featuring a who's who of indie rock luminaries from the National to Dinosaur Jr., Vic Chesnutt to Juliana Hatfield and, on the more mainstream side of things, Thom Yorke, Frank Black, and Michael Stipe, it showed Mulcahy to be that most revered of artists considered a “musician’s musician". The trouble with this, however, is that, while the accolades are certainly appreciated, they do little in the way of furthering one’s standing from a commercial standpoint.

And while The Possum in the Driveway will do little in the way of remedying this paradox, it is, for Mulcahy, a marked departure from the sound on which he has largely built his reputation as a musician’s musician. Where before guitars tended to be the primary infrastructure framing his bittersweet, melancholic ballads, here he simultaneously broadens and strips down his instrumental palette, incorporating keyboards, drunken horns, spectral soundscapes and a greater reliance on the empty spaces to help convey the underlying emotionality in yet another set of heartbreaking ballads and interpersonal ruminations.

Opening track “Stuck on Something Else” finds Mulcahy virtually sighing the chorus, “Can’t be all the things you want me to be / I’m stuck on something else / I can’t be proud, so I’m louder than I should be / I’m stuck on something else.” Given the open-endedness of his impressionistically poetic lyrics, the phrase could be taken to mean any number of things, from a direct commentary on his life as a musician, his inability to assuage those around him or simply a blunt declaration that, for now, his mind still resides with the memory of his late wife. This latter sentiment seems a thematic through-line that traces its way through the whole of the album, only his second release since her death. “I’m terrified of myself without you,” he sings on “30 Days Away.” “I should be braver, but what can I do? / Every day ends the same, melancholically pained.”

Far from self-indulgently maudlin -- something Mulcahy would have every right to be should he so desire -- The Possum in the Driveway instead wraps its heavy-hearted sadness in gorgeously simple melodic themes that carry a certain universality. This ability to take the deeply personal and make it broadly universal has long been the hallmark of the best, most introspective songwriters, a list on which Mulcahy has long since assured his presence.

Less immediate than its predecessors, The Possum in the Driveway requires more of the listener in order to parse out the brilliance inherent throughout not only in Mulcahy’s lyrics, but the multiple instrumental layers on tracks like “Catching Mice” (“Is the good advice you paid for worth the waste of time you prayed for?”). Here he wraps a singsong melody in a glimmering sheen of delicate flute, plangent guitar, open-chord strums and a martial snare, all of which come together to form something of a medieval round. It’s one of many brilliant, understated elements within an album filled to the brim with genius (see also “The Fiddler” for further evidence of the aforementioned genius).

But nothing on the album proves more devastatingly heartbreaking both musically and lyrically than the transcendent “Conflicted Interests.” Delivered from the perspective of a groom hoping to turn his life around by settling down, assuaging his more reckless and morally suspect tendencies, he hopes to, “Live a long life, with your new wife / And let the credits roll on.” Recognizing the monumental impact of such a decision, moving beyond himself and encouraging another the enter his personal orbit, he simultaneously attempts to reassure himself despite knowing the sad fact that, if anything, this new life will only exacerbate existing issues in time: “It’s the day, it’s the day that you say that you’ll make a fresh start / But it’ll be the same way every day here from now on.” Finally, his titular concern is, “commemorated now with a smile and a tear/same place, same time next year,” the phrase repeated ad nauseum by Mulcahy as the track fades out.

Those already enamored of Mulcahy’s gifts as a songwriter will find themselves all the more so with The Possum in the Driveway. For the uninitiated, it’ll be a massive undertaking to dive into what essentially amounts to an Advanced Studies course on Mulcahy. In time, however, those willing to take the time and surrender themselves to Mulcahy’s world within our world will find much of themselves in these narratives. More so than perhaps any other songwriter working today, Mark Mulcahy manages to capture each subtle, melancholy-tinged nuance of love, loss and the unceasing march of time. The Possum in the Driveway is as brilliant as it is profound, cut through with sadness and longing, life and love, and some of the best songwriting to have been released this year.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.