The mere existence of Stroke Manor, the new album by the Minus 5, is a miracle and a testament to the power of music therapy. The fact that Stroke Manor is a groovy damn album is a value-added bonus.
Scott McCaughey, leader of the Minus 5, may not be a household name, but he ought to be. In addition to the Minus 5, McCaughey has led seminal Seattle band Young Fresh Fellows for decades. Along with the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn, McCaughey co-leads the Baseball Project, an ace pop-rock band whose songs do indeed focus on the colorful history of baseball. McCaughey is also a member of Filthy Friends, the alt-rock supergroup fronted by Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. And speaking of R.E.M, McCaughey played an integral role in that band’s albums and concert tours from 1994 through the band’s retirement in 2011.
McCaughey’s rock ‘n’ roll career came to an abrupt halt in November 2017 when he suffered a life-threatening stroke. But it was during McCaughey’s first three-week hospital stay that Stroke Manor was born. Although doctors speculated that McCaughey, who lost much of his musical memory, might not play again, he began scribbling down the words that would become the lyrics on Stroke Manor, while still in the hospital.
The album, which was recorded a few months into his recovery (and initially released in a limited edition on Record Store Day 2019 on 13 April), opens deceptively with “Plascent Folk”, a pastoral ballad that features at least one word (“plascent”) that only existed in McCaughey’s mind in the days after the stroke.
The second track, “My Collection” is more representative of the sound of Stroke Manor. “My Collection” and the next song, “Beacon from RKO” are guitar-based rockers that will probably remind R.E.M. fans of their 1994 album, Monster, minus Michael Stipe’s oddly lecherous lyrics. Instead, McCaughey’s surreal words don’t literally tell the story of his stroke but evoke the feeling of being disoriented and trying to find the way back to something relatively normal.
These songs are followed by the super-catchy pop tunes “Bleach Boys & Beach Girls”, and “My Master Bull”, which initially sounds like it wants to turn into psychedelic bubblegum chestnut, “Green Tambourine”. “Beatles Forever (Little Red)” is a subtle tip of the hat to the Beatles, of course, but also to Peter Buck, who made McCaughey a Beatles mix to help him recover his musical memory not long after the stroke.
Stroke Manor continues in this vein, songs with swirling psychedelic music and head-scratching lyrics like “Pink Bag for Rip Torn” and “Scar Crow”. The first few spins of the album feel slightly dizzying, but eventually, it falls into place, with the melodies taking hold and the lyrics displaying their own logic.
A few songs do directly address McCaughey’s medical situation, the most obvious being the faux-funk song, “MRI”. The closing song, another ballad called “Top Venom”, features lines like “I am short of breath / I am in pain” that were printed on cards McCaughey used to communicate with doctors during his ICU stay. “I wanna get out of bed / I wanna go home” feel like the most direct, honest lines on the whole album.
On the song “Goodbye Braverman”, McCaughey speculates on what he’d do if he were a braver man. But suffering a stroke, and recovering to tell the tale with an album as weirdly fun as Stroke Manor seems like an inspired act of bravery. And survival.