Album Review: Mark Mulcahy - The Possum in The Driveway
One of the things that makes Mark Mulcahy one of the best living, and criminally underrated, songwriters is his uncanny ability to juxtapose a sense of whimsy, a sense of nostalgia, and a sense of sadness in his work—sometimes all at the same time.
It’s that delicate balance Mulcahy strikes yet again on his fifth solo album, and first in four years, The Possum in The Driveway, a dense and at times somber affair that finds him branching out from his jangle pop background, reaching into new sonic territories.
Possum arrives on the heels of Mulcahy’s recent reunion kick—in 2014, he reunited his fictional band Polaris for their first ever tour; in 2016 and just this year, he reformed Miracle Legion for a run of successful shows and a subsequent live double album. This album finds Mulcahy retreating from the role of “frontman,” and easing back into the position of “singer and songwriter.”
“Mark Mulcahy sounds sad.”
That was my wife’s initial reaction to hearing Possum’s opening track—the somber, slow burning “Stuck on Something Else.” And she’s right of course; Mulcahy, often jovial in his lyrical delivery, slides almost effortlessly into downcast terrain, pensively singing over the top of melancholic Fender Rhodes Piano.
But don’t worry—it isn’t all somber and slow burning; Mulcahy’s trademark jangly guitar tone makes its first appearance on the second song, the driving “30 Days Away,” prior to steering head-on into the whimsical “Catching Mice,” the surprisingly soulful and bluesy “The Fiddler,” and the incredibly jaunty, falsetto laden “Hollywood Never Forgives.”
The album’s second half begins with one of its finest moments—“Conflicted Interests,” a song that finds Mulcahy conjuring up an aching, bittersweet nostalgia—the kind of feeling he evoked on his work with Polaris for the soundtrack to “The Adventures of Pete and Pete.”
The second half of Possum is also where Mulcahy stored the most surprising of this material, including the very slinky, nearly funky groove of “Cross The Street,” the atmospheric “They Broke The Spell,” and the stunning closing track—the gorgeous, plaintive, slow motion “Geraldine,” complete with a saxophone solo.
What makes Mulcahy such a national treasure of a songwriter is that he’s also a storyteller—rarely does he place himself in his songs, and if he does, it is dressed up in so many layers of metaphor, you’re not really sure what is real, and what isn’t. Instead of writing autobiographically, Mulcahy (especially in his solo outings) has relied on creating evocative narratives and crafting memorable characters in his songs. This blur of fiction and possible fact is refreshing in comparison to the many, and often times heavy handed, songs from other singer/songwriters who write from a deeply personal place about deeply personal things.
Mulcahy took an eight year break between 2005’s In Pursuit of Your Happiness, and its follow up, Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You. But this break was out of necessity—his wife’s death in 2008 left him alone with two young daughters to raise. The four-year space in between Dear Mark J. Mulcahy and Possum was, however, self-imposed, but during this time, he stayed busy with the Polaris and Miracle Legion reunions. In the press materials for Possum, he claims this record “took years off of” his life, and the recording was beleaguered by a recording studio fire along with the album itself being shelved for a number of years.
The year after his wife’s passing, a benefit and tribute album to Mulcahy was released, with all proceeds going to his family. The marquee names attached to the collection (Thom Yorke, The National) certainly helped raise his profile as a singer, as does the constant nostalgia for “The Adventures of Pete and Pete.” New listeners are still discovering the music of Polaris every day. Mulcahy has always been a cult performer, but the cult continues to grow every time someone listens to “Hey Sandy” on YouTube.
The Possum in The Driveway arrives 20 years after Mulcahy’s solo debut, and it shows 20 years of struggle and growth for him as a singer, songwriter, and performer. He’s eased into a role of the elder statesman of idiosyncratic alternative rock, and even after over 30 years in the industry, Mulcahy is still honing his craft and still has stories to tell. Possum is not so much a “crowning achievement” for him, but it is a more even and better executed release when compared to its predecessor—a collection of songs that are packed with an unexpected amount of depth; songs that linger in your mind long after the record has stopped spinning.
PS- on a side note, while the moody cover art of this record is fine, I feel like calling an album The Possum in The Driveway and not including a photo of a dope ass possum on the sleeve is a missed opportunity.
The Possum in The Driveway is out now on gold/orange vinyl, compact disc, and as a digital download, via Mulcahy's own Mezzotint.