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 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.