It is exceedingly difficult to qualify Mogwai’s work in the conventional sense. Not that there aren’t terms out there, mind you — I’ve seen everything from post-rock, ambient, soundtracking, space rock, experimental and onward to describe their work, and all of those designations fit. But Mogwai is that rare band that outdistances concretization; simply, to encapsulate their soundscapes with some totalizing expression is to miss the point, which is, of course, the music. And that is where written or spoken language will fail you.
If anything, visual language seems to work best when talking of Mogwai’s music (except that dumbshit running-of-the-bulls Super Bowl commercial Levi’s put to Ten Rapid‘s “Summer”). Like some of 4AD’s finest work from the late ’80s, Happy Songs for Happy People is accompaniment music, stuff you carry throughout your travels and travails. It is more than capable of enhancing your chosen environment, whatever it is; it is, in fact, why God . . . um, I mean Steve Jobs created the iPod. Speaking personally, I take Mogwai into the mountains and cities, where it sharpens the resolution on forests and teeming masses to the point that some type of Pynchonian apocalypse seems eminently nigh. And that might sound pretentious, but screw it, it’s true.
After all, instrumental music has been used by everyone from Beethoven to the Beats to Stanley Kubrick (after whom Mogwai has named one of their finest songs) to David Lynch to hammer thematic points homeward. It’s practically a cultural constant, and is again, with the currently mind-numbing proliferation of talking-head media, quickly becoming a much-desired artistic practice. Mostly because words are so carelessly implemented and more often than not can fuck up a really, really good thing. Sometimes you need space to think and reflect; in fact, that is perhaps the finest description I can conjure to explain what Mogwai’s Happy Songs for Happy People actually does for you. It gives you space.
Mogwai has never really been about the words anyway, although they’ve been singing a bit more lately, although not as much on Happy Songs as on Rock Action and Come On Die Young. Without the band’s contextual disclosures in hand, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s a serious disconnect between the gorgeous movements of “Burn Girl Prom Queen” (from Mogwai’s self-titled EP) and its title. Same goes this time around. With song titles like “Hunted By a Freak”, “Stop Coming to My House”, and “Moses? I Amn’t”, the track titles on Happy Songs don’t make a shred of sense. But tinkering with convention seems to be Mogwai’s modus operandi. Well, that and making beautiful music.
The earlier talk about Mogwai’s classic EP — which features “Burn Girl Prom Queen”, “Stanley Kubrick” and other incredible songs — is fitting because although Happy Songs blazes its own unique trail, it still feels as if they took that EP’s mood and setting and stretched it out into a full-fledged masterpiece. Like that short offering — but unlike Come On Die Young — there aren’t really any ponderous moments on Happy Songs, no wasted energy or time. Everything fits perfectly.
“Hunted Like a Freak” has the ornate dynamics of “Stanley Kubrick”, the same humming, haunting cello accompaniment, the same loud-soft-loud movement. Centered around a hooky guitar progression that is buttressed by the vocal effects used at length on Rock Action‘s “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong”, “Hunted Like a Freak” is a swelling classic, and easily the album’s coolest tune. “Golden Porsche” is eerily similar to the EP’s gorgeous “Christmas Song”, ground firmly in a stirring piano progression (although the background feedback is a nice wrinkle). Same with “Kids Will Be Skeletons”, whose measured plucking and angelic synths bring the same churning atmosphere of “Xmas Steps” and “Rollerball” to mind.
But you’re going to have such similarities if you’re Mogwai, if only because you’re refusing to have the added distraction of vocals mess with your minor symphonies. And there are, of course, songs that sound unlike anything the band has ever done before. The shoegazer-friendly “Moses? I Amn’t” and “Stop Coming to My House” are bracing experiments in density, especially the latter tune, which piles noise and instrument atop each other until a critical mass tears the whole thing to pieces almost five minutes later. Then there is the epic, eight-minute “Ratts of the Capital”, which sounds like an agglomeration of Come On Die Young‘s roughest work and Rock Action‘s emotional catharsis all rolled into one long gut-wrencher.
All this pointing and grunting might sound like a critical cop-out, but it’s an inherent part of the Mogwai experience. You can’t help but listen to their songs as microcosmic glimpses of their overall artistic output, links in an addictive musical chain. Unlike the more adult alternative-friendly Sigur Ros (whose songs — and lyrics, what there is of them — often sound too similar to each other), Mogwai’s music redefines estrangement, albeit one that feels and sounds too beautiful to believe. There is often a lonely desperation about them, as well as a self-conscious jab at the solipsism of it all. No matter what the music may conjure, there seems to be no escaping the fact that loaded terms like “Hunted”, “Freak”, “Skeletons”, “Killing”, “Flies”, “Boring”, “Machines”, “Ratts”, and “Disturbs” run not just through their language but through their movements as well. Is this what Jim Morrison was trying to communicate when he wrote, “People are strange/When you’re a stranger/Faces look ugly/When you’re alone”?
No one knows, especially since the two bands are so disparate in their work, ethos and popularity. But loneliness is an eyesore, to paraphrase 4AD, and it transcends continents and musical genres. It also runs through the ironically named Happy Songs For Happy People like an unchecked, lethal virus. But who knew that loneliness and estrangement could be so moving, so emotional? Like other Scottish groups (Cocteau Twins, Echo and the Bunnymen, etc.) that have channeled such fundamental energy into touching productions, Mogwai has tapped into an almost preternatural soundscape capable of eliciting feelings that Beyonce and Eminem just can’t touch.
In the end, Happy Songs might sound like Mogwai’s earlier work or be unapproachable to the listener who spends his time chilling in Sam Goody, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one of the most amazing albums of the year. Because it is. If, like Cobain sang, you miss the comfort in being sad, then get Happy.