It is easy to have high expectations in this world, and just as easy to have those expectations dashed to pieces on the big craggy rocks of Reality. One second we want to, as the Steve Miller Band says, “Fly Like an Eagle” — and the next, we realize that we are just, in the words of Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”. One would like to argue that one condition cannot exist without the other, that we need both conditions in our lives; in fact, I think I will argue that. Just think of the pop songs that argue thusly: Frankie Beverly’s “Joy and Pain”, Pizzicato Five’s “Happy Sad”, the Poets of Rhythm’s “Smilin’ While You’re Cryin'”. The list goes on, proving my point each time.
I began this assignment with very high expectations. I had been one of the many music reviewers who really enjoyed Mull Historical Society‘s first record, Loss. It was hard for anyone to deny that Colin MacIntyre, MHS’s only real member, wasn’t some kind of hook-happy savant, but some reviewers took him to task for being a whiny sad-sack sort of fellow. And, it must be said, he played right into their hands on that one. Lyrics like “Only I know how hard I try / To get nowhere” and “Me me me / I’m determined to be a loser / And I know it” were easy targets for anyone who wanted to pigeonhole MacIntyre as a chronic whinge, an emo guy, someone who seemed to cherish his solitude as much as his old records, someone who needs others but only to answer that sad musical question, “Can anyone tell / If my stereo’s on?”
But I heard Loss differently. I knew it was a book of short stories, featuring different narrator characters, rather than a novel with a unified theme, and approached it as such. That’s the only way one can make sense of Loss (and loss itself): in quantum packets. The complicated structures of songs like “Barcode Bypass” and “Instead” helped show me that there was more to MHS than just sadness; anyone who actually listened to the song “Mull Historical Society”, with its mystical propulsive Moody Blues boogie and its claim to discover “a different point of view”, knew that MacIntyre was in this for the long haul, and had more to offer than just tears and lovely chorus hooks.
So when I first heard Us, MHS’s second record, I was surprised at its direction. “The Final Arrears”, the first song and obvious first single, struck me as something rather too straightforward, non-slippery, easily digestible: “Reach out your hands / Where it lies is where it lands / Take home the final arrears” is a brilliant lyric, but it’s . . . well . . . kinda not depressing! Could the guy who once sang “Hold on to loneliness” really now be singing “Hold onto the photographs / Hold onto your friends”? It’s a grand glorious song, full of vocal chassis-washes and soaring strings, but it — oh my goodness — seems to come straight from his heart. Which, I must admit, freaked me out a little.
And I kept getting freaked out. MacIntyre has become his own main character on Us, and that takes some getting used to. He’s thrown away most of his masks here — when he does a song about missing his father, who has recently died, it comes out all sincere Brit-pop, with a minimum of weird chord changes; “5 More Minutes” has a choir, strings, and tons of instrumental layers to it, but that’s not the focus of the song anymore, the way it kind of was on the first album — now, everything is simply the means rather than the end. The crux of the song is MacIntyre’s achingly sincere voice, singing “It’s only a war in my head” and “It’s only seconds away”. Its companion piece, “Oh Mother,” is just as real, a harpsichord-fueled statement of family solidarity in the face of his father’s death: “Oh mother the pain / Is part of the joy / And that is the deal / Oh mother I’m fine / I’m blinking in time / To block out the fear”. Sure, it’s pretty and has lots of beautiful changes but it is also actually about something real.
This record is MacIntyre’s admission that he is grown-up enough not to hide behind faux-depressoid stylings and fancy studio tricks. “Can” is a medium-level bounce with synthesized steel-drum noises and a funky guitar strum, changing halfway through into a pop symphony and then back again — but what it really is a song about how sometimes the work of opening someone up is what we think love is, and about how that’s sometimes wrong and sometimes right, and that’s just the way things are. Without actually saying any of that. And with lovely changes. It’s elusive and lovely, instead of sad and lovely, and thereby infinitely sexier.
Which is not to say that every song follows the same pattern. “Minister for Genetics & Insurance M.P.” is the funkiest song ever written about the Sisyphean futility of parliamentary politics and about how we’re all just M.P.s, really: “We’re Ministers abroad / We’re Ministers at home / We’re trying to keep our jobs”. “The Supermarket Strikes Back” tries to continue the saga begun in “Barcode Bypass” on Loss. That song detailed the struggle of a small grocery storeowner forced out of business by a Big Bad Chainstore; this new one is about the manager of that chainstore, forced into pill-popping depression when the other guy finally kicks the bucket. It’s a mess, actually, and it took me way too long to figure it out, but I’m glad MacIntyre hasn’t put all the pretty costumes away after all. Acting is fun, even if songs with lyrics like “And this is the last time / That I’ll sit with my mouth open / And wait for the flies to come in / From the grave of a grocer”, y’know, aren’t.
And then there are some new patterns being formed. “Live Like the Automatics” is a rock song detailing how “Fighting the world alone / Battling mobile phones / Fighting society / Never did much for me”. This would be some kind of anti-revolutionary statement like the Beatles’ “Revolution” if MacIntyre wasn’t actually still politically engaged, and if it wasn’t just a really fun pop-rock song. “Her Is You” and “Asylum” are both Phil Spector-style exercises in going full-bore with melody and sound and bells and echoes and stuff. And if “Am I Wrong” bites “Unchained Melody,” and if the title track just takes a huge chomp out of the best song on the last Spiritualized album, then hey, man, sometimes genius has to steal stuff from other geniuses.
Overall, I’m not sure what this record has to do with Loss. It’s a continuation, it’s a break; it’s a new and old direction; etc. The real advance here, though, is the fact that Us gives us some insight into the real Colin MacIntyre, instead of the sad-sack stereotype we came to love on Loss. MacIntyre turns out to be a really interesting guy, a nice guy, a guy who’s coming to terms with a lot of heavy stuff in his life, a guy who’s able to put that heavy stuff into beautiful pop music. As to whether this is an “improvement” or “a step backward” from the last record, I don’t know and it doesn’t matter — the Mull Historical Society isn’t going away anytime soon. Jump on board: it’s going to be a fun ride.