Album Review: Miracle Legion - Portrait of A Damaged Family (20th anniversary reissue)

For an album with the title Portrait of A Damaged Family, one would expect Miracle Legion’s final effort, originally released in 1996, to be a rather dark affair.

And given the track record the band had with not one, but two record labels, at that point (well documented in a recent long read on Consequence of Sound) you wouldn’t fault them if they made a rather bleak final album before quietly calling it a day.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, as well as the 20th anniversary of the label created to release it, Portrait of A Damaged Family, a bit of a “lost album” of sorts, was reissued on vinyl for Record Store Day—following that, it, along with the rest of Miracle Legion’s output, were made available digitally for the first time.

Despite the title, and everything hanging over the band at the time, Portrait of A Damaged Family is not all that dark of a record after all; it does what songwriter Mark Mulcahy had been working toward at that point, and continued to strive at in his subsequent solo efforts—it tries to find the balance between sorrow, whimsy, and bittersweet nostalgia (though that is much more downplayed here than it was when 3/4ths of the band convened to record music for the television show “TheAdventures of Pete and Pete.”)

In this case, it’s a majority of the more sorrowful or at least more ‘serious’ sounding songs that find success; it’s the whimsical, or more novel songs, while providing a nice contrast in Mulcahy’s song writing, can make Portrait a bit of an uneven listen at times—e.g. the very jaunty and silly “I Wish I Was Danny Kaye” or the ramshackle “Accidentally on Purpose.”

The album’s best song, “Madison Park,” is also on the jaunty side, but in a different, less playful way. Miracle Legion’s sound could always be classified as post-R.E.M. jangle pop, despite their possible dislike of that pigeonholing. Their music was always a true product of its time, sonically speaking, and Portrait is no different—the chorus pedals are turned up high, and there are moments that get caught up in that “mid 90s alternative rock” sound—“Madison Park” being one of them, as well the very downcast sounding “Six Months” and this edition of the album’s ‘new’ track, “The Depot.”

Not that I am any kind of expert at Portrait (this is, in fact, my first time hearing it), or some kind of purist, but one thing it is worth noting that this reissue does is it tinkers with the album’s original track list.

Keeping the same opening three tracks, as well as the usage of the excellent and stark “Gone to Bed at 21,” as the closing song, the vinyl reissue omits three selections—“Six Months,” “Please” and “La Muerte di Gardenier”—and demotes them to “bonus tracks” featured in the digital version of the album. It replaces those with the inclusion of “The Depot,” and also shuffles around the order of the rest of the album a little bit.

Portrait of A Damaged Family is by no means a bad album—it’s just an uneven one when taken as a whole. It’s not so much the sound of a band imploding, but you can definitely tell that is the sound of a band that is uncertain what to do next.

Long out of print following its original release, revisiting it (or simply visiting it for the first time with this reissue) is not detrimental to the legacy of Miracle Legion’s brief, excellent canon, and despite its flaws, it still has moments that shine, and it, if anything else, provides a glimpse into the final days of a beloved, and always criminally underrated band. 

Portrait of A Damaged Family is available now as a limited edition vinyl reissue and also available digitally.