Mark Mulcahy's 'The Gus' Is an Elusive and Mysterious Delight
Taking inspiration from the short fiction of George Saunders and featuring guest appearances from Rain Phoenix and J. Mascis, Mark Mulcahy condenses ten brilliant and baffling short stories into barely a half hour of music.
5 July 2019
Mark Mulcahy might be part of a dying breed of old-fashioned songwriters who just continue to plow a furrow of excellence regardless of the trends, trials or tribulations swirling wickedly in the world around him. Nevertheless, he is paying close attention to the lies and treacheries at work in that same wicked world he may be trying to ignore. Mulcahy is also part of what one hopes is a less dying breed, in that he remains dedicated to a certain flinty-eyed romanticism. As a result of these traits, Mulcahy might well exist, for better or for worse, under the radar of a culture that is mostly on the lookout for shiny new objects over which to fawn and slobber. He is living in the interstices of the musical canon when he should rightfully have been headlining festivals and crushing it commercially in a way that befits the quality of his songwriting and his extravagant musical ability.
Mark Mulcahy's musical profile is one of several examples of the ways in which the world is not a fair or just place. If it were, we would not only have universal healthcare and global peace and harmony, but Mark Mulcahy would also be ensconced in a fancy mansion eating bonbons while his hordes of admirers clamored at his gilded gate for just a glimpse of the great man in his natural habitat. Of course, Mark Mulcahy also seems like to kind of person who might be profoundly uncomfortable to find himself trapped in a mansion with only bonbons and fame for company. So perhaps he deserves more of our attention and respect, all of which we will attempt to provide here in consideration of his new and very fine album The Gus, his sixth solo offering.
The Gus is a deceptive album in many ways – there is, for example, no apparent explanation for the origin of the title. There are ten songs over just 36 minutes, and it all seems almost tossed off. But once you go back and start to listen to it with more focus the craft of both lyrics and music becomes immediately apparent, as does the stylistic variety. Of course, Mulcahy comes out of a certain tradition of guitar music somewhere between folky Americana and full-blooded rock and roll. His band Miracle Legion was part of that loose movement of bands that contained the eventual behemoth R.E.M., and although they never reached those heights, they were always worthy of being mentioned in the same breath with such thoroughbreds. Similarly, it is hard to see why one shouldn't view The Gus as in any way inferior to the recent work of current darling Kevin Morby.
Mulcahy deliberately does not publish his lyrics with his albums, and this willful refusal to give all of the game away creates an intriguing mystique. He has said, though that he was "(i)nspired to 'up his lyrical game'" while reading the short fiction of George Saunders, so it might behoove us to consider this album as a loosely configured set of short stories set against various musical backdrops. Speaking of the wickedness of the world as we were at the outset, Mulcahy comes out of the gate with the stately and slightly sinister chamber music of "Wicked World". It's a compelling vignette (featuring a duet of sorts with Rain Phoenix) that begins in the domestic tranquillity of walking the dog and looking forward to a piece of pie later. But then the song quickly escalates into some kind of murky Bonnie and Clyde situation that may or may not involve murderous infidelity, all without us even really noticing.
It's the kind of sleight of hand that only a genuinely gifted storyteller and songwriter could pull off. So seamless is the shift of registers from serene calm to shocking brutality to expressions of true love, and finally to a sad and pathetic demise, which by the way is never anything but remarkably pretty. This is the true compression that one finds in only the best short stories. "Wicked World" has been described elsewhere as a "new kind of murder ballad", and this doesn't seem an inaccurate or unreasonable description as our Romeo lies bleeding on the sidewalk while "the red light of the ambulance grows".
As an opening salvo you couldn't ask for much more in the way of musical and lyrical hooks, or to be more completely wrong-footed and disoriented. Even the tenses are all mixed up between present, past and future. It's really quite bewildering as a narrative and almost impossible for us to locate ourselves in it, as if the song's very syntax sets out to seduce and perplex us simultaneously. What on earth is going on here? Mulcahy's fictional world is immediately both wicked and confounding, and as a result completely fascinating. If this were a novel, we would certainly want to read on and find out what happens next, and why. In particular, you might want to ask, what became of the dog, and for that matter the pie as well.
The following track "Daisy Marie" is just as lyrically subtle and melodically beautiful as its predecessor, and it's a rare song that deploys the phrase "lovey-dovey" amid another tale of psychotic and unexplained romantic violence, or at least the threat of it. One almost feels as if one is in the company of Flannery O'Connor rather than George Saunders, or at least the entirely illegitimate but entirely compelling lovechild of their literary union. Just consider, if you will, this little lyrical slice from "Daisy Marie", as evidence of how Mulcahy's work draws you in and leaves you stranded at the same time:
"Don't come to me all lovey-dovey
You know it's only make believe
Put away your spider web
Because this ain't some I love you Halloween
Don't sit on my pink settee
Cause pretty soon you're gonna have to leave
You think I'm just a catfish in the water
All googly-eyed around your shiny little hook
Put me under your microscope
But Daisy you hardly ever take a look
You try to break into the bank of my love
Honey you ain't nothing but a small-time crook
But when it comes to homicide you pull the trigger on the suicide of us"
Such vivid and specific imagery that ultimately conveys only a narrative indeterminacy is the work of a poet, and Daisy Marie is clearly a femme fatale in the classic mold, even if her motives and her wiles are beyond any true comprehension. But it's the lyrical details that delight: the spider web, the pink settee, the catfish, the microscope, and finally "the suicide of us". We should bow down before such particular abstractions, set against the backdrop of a truly wonderful and counter-intuitively jaunty melody.
Mulcahy then lets loose a little bit more with "Taking Baby Steps" and "Later for the Box", recalling ever so slightly the cadences of the equally underrated Russ Tolman, a contemporary of Miracle Legion from his time in True West. These songs resonate a little bit with some of the best moments from Tolman's Totem Poles and Glory Holes (1986) and Down in Earthquake Town (1988). That's not to say that there's anything the least bit retro or nostalgic about these songs, only that Mulcahy comes from a lineage of very fine songwriters and that he continues to fly the flag and carry the torch for that merry and slightly wizened band of artisans.
There is beauty here in almost equal measure with polemic as Mulcahy oscillates between the more personal and confessional voice and a more overtly political one. "People Beware" and "Mr. Bell" are both Dylanesque jeremiads about our current reality, almost protest songs that nevertheless retain their attachment to melody and lyrical craft. You can hear something approaching a snarling anger in each of these two songs, a tone which is missing from much of the rest of the album, but this is just part of Mulcahy's impressive emotional, intellectual and vocal range. In either event, whether offering a winsome (and simultaneously rather sinister) love song or withering political commentary, there is a feeling that confidences are being shared, even though we may not understand the precise nature of the confidences being whispered in our ear. That also explains what might almost be considered a clue in the form of the rather coyly titled "I Won't Tell Anyone But You".
"Happy Boat" comes as something of a surprise, not because of its continuing high quality but because it emphasises Mulcahy's remarkable ability to change up his vocal register and timbre. Here, he recalls the very dulcet tones of Rufus Wainwright, which his rather raspier earlier performances might not have led you to expect. It's a lovely song, one of many of the album's highlights. As he does elsewhere on the album, Mulcahy instantiates and encodes his own elusiveness in his lyrics with the opening salvo "You're more interested in escaping than remaining" sublimating and transferring his reluctance to show all of his cards by granting that same quality to one of his many characters. It's another brilliant sleight of hand. He doesn't rest on his laurels with this, perhaps the prettiest song on the album, as he leaps immediately to another vocal style with the almost Beatles-esque ornate elaboration of "A Long Time Ago". But he is canny enough not to tip his hand in terms of whether he is ventriloquizing either Lennon or McCartney, but rather some hybrid of the two.
The closing song, "What If I Go off with Bob?" is almost a complete mystery in terms of any meaning that might be derived from its lyrics. Mark appears to have received a telegram that says, "What if I go off with Bob?" Mulcahy admits that this message was "cryptically trippy", so we are not alone in our perplexity here. One can only infer that perhaps the singer's partner is teasing him with a threat to leave with this pesky Bob character because "he's got the sugar that I need". To be cuckolded by telegram seems both cruel and unusual, but the song feels like an almost comedic romp as a result of this absurdity. But who knows really? This could be about something altogether else, and this seems only fitting for an album that has by Mulcahy's own previous admission drawn on the left-field surrealism of George Saunders for its inspiration. The song is musically and lyrically ramshackle in a way that even recalls similar eccentricities perpetrated over many decades by Robyn Hitchcock.
And the question is left hanging, "What if I do?" as the album ends with a guitar thud and an unanswered telegram. What a weird and fantastic way to end an album of odd stories, loose ends, beautiful turns of lyrical and musical phrase. We should be grateful for Mark Mulcahy, and for the persistent weirdness of The Gus.