Call me shallow, but the cover art of Loss almost kept me from buying the thing. Nevermind the obsequious musings from the British press prominently displayed on the outside (I picked up my copy in Ireland); nevermind the string of hits the album had already produced; no — one glimpse of the fucking dog wearing the damned wig, and I was a goner. Maybe one should never judge a book by its cover, but an album of music unheard has very little else to go on, and a dog in a wig on a garish orange background with cartoonish fonts to me says one thing: atrocious. Oh, and another thing: huh?
All the aesthetic je ne sais quoi likely is leaning toward the more quizzical reaction, and other adjectives: quirky, curious, out-of-sync, eccentric, unique. Sitting somewhere in the valley between the Flaming Lips, Super Furry Animals and Beta Band, Mull Historical Society’s aim is to wow and woo with weird sounds, saccharine melodies, and a beyond-trends, almost provincial gusto. Though working within a Britpop tradition, Mull Historical Society break the mold by being carnivalesque without camp, sincere without sense, and pop without pomp. No wonder they’ve been chalked up to be one of the more original bands to come around the British indie scene in a long time — Mull Historical Society sounds as if they’ve no idea how to follow the pack, even if they wanted to.
The “they” of MHS is mostly a “he”. Colin MacIntyre, who grew up on the isle of Mull that’s west of Scotland, started Mull Historical Society in his mind’s eye and ear, then picked up members here and there to flesh out his creative vision. Much like Damon Gough (aka Badly Drawn Boy), Mull Historical Society’s music is utterly personal as well as egomaniacal, riddled with the pop-prog aural footnotes that manifest only when someone gives full import to any idea that might cross his mind. (Take note — the album is chock full of tracks-between-tracks, mini-melodies, and songs that seem to stutter by ending twice.) Content-wise, the bright music often carries visions of hopeless futures, peculiar private memories, and otherwise random anecdotes. Subsequently, Loss sometimes feels like an incredibly esoteric inside joke, written by someone undergoing violent mood swings.
Beginning Loss is “Public Service Announcer”, a plodding though somehow cheery overture-like number about the confines of work, particularly in public service. MacIntyre’s vocals — hardly beautiful, but with a definitely catchy kitsch — are plain and simple, sometimes speaking, sometimes sing-speaking. Musically, the song builds haphazardly; instruments drop out then reappear for flourish, and sometimes the melody is carried by no more than voice and percussion, or the childlike piano etude. It’s curiously both positive and bleak, mirroring the feeling the song articulates, of being personally free under social or economic regulation.
Such a number in no way prepares you for “Xanadu”, a full, hooky tune — the sort you can sing along to immediately. Still, despite its poppiness, it has its own dark corners. “She says there’s a photograph / she says it’s the saddest thing,” MacIntyre sings, the lyrics clashing with the musical mood like rain on a sunny day. This tactic repeats across the album — from the zealous pep of “This Is Not Who We Were”, which MacIntyre has described as “very much a 1984 image”, to the sing-song manifesto of “Animal Cannabus”, which professes stalwart non-conformity, perhaps at the cost of isolation. And since so much of the album derives directly from the sensibilities begotten by growing up on a somewhat isolated isle, one begins to wonder if MacIntyre views that mindset as a liberation or a cage.
Loss is an album that can be listened to on many levels, depending on how fully you want to entrench yourself in MacIntyre’s world. The problem — and perhaps for some, the intrigue — is that none of the layers feel wholly satisfying. Upon cursory listenings, the music is lush, tuneful and accessible, but beyond that, it feels deceptive against the peculiarity laden in nearly every track. It’s not just that the songs are deep or melancholy — more than that, they are decidedly over your head and painstakingly subliminal. Be prepared, at every interval of Loss, to ask far more questions than you’ll be able to answer. First up: who in the world decided to put that dog in a wig on the cover?