Album Review: Mark Mulcahy - The Gus
In the year 2019, there are, more than likely, three ways that you would have come upon The Gus, the new solo outing from singer and songwriter Mark Mulcahy.
1—You are older than I am.
Recently, I turned 36, which puts me toward the younger end of the spectrum found in Mulcahy’s fan base. Before he was a solo artist, he spent the 1980s, and into the very early part of the 1990s, fronting the much loved, and now much mythologized, cult ‘college rock’ band, Miracle Legion.
As jangly and infectious as their counterparts in, say, R.E.M., Miracle Legion could never get out of that shadow—label woes and line up changes did not help things either, and following the release of what became, in a sense, a lost album (1996’s Portrait of A Damaged Family) the group fizzled out completely and Mulcahy went solo shortly there after.
Miracle Legion formed the year I was born, and issued its debut EP the following year, so if you were actually in college, listening to ‘college rock’ on your campus’ radio station in the 1980s, or happened to be some kind of incredibly hip teenager and were aware of bands of this nature, my guess is you’ve followed the trajectory of Mulcahy’s career throughout the rest of the 90s, into the 2000s, and to today, with The Gus, his sixth solo full-length LP.
2—Ciao, My Shining Star
A decade ago, The Shout Factory gathered together a large stable of artists—some of them very well known, some of them less so, and put together a tribute album of Mulcahy’s music—spanning his entire canon up to that point.
Calling it a ‘tribute’ album is a bit of a misnomer, because it was more of a fundraiser, or benefit, for Mulcahy and his family than anything else—portions from the album’s sale were given to him following the sudden passing of his wife the year prior, leaving him with, at the time, two young daughters to care for.
Released as a single CD, and an expanded digital version in iTunes, Ciao, My Shining Star, in whatever form you found it and listened to it, could be uneven at times in terms of artistry and quality, but it made the best out of its marquee names, including Michael Stipe, making a rare solo appearance prior to the disbanding of R.E.M., Dinosaur JR, Frank Black, The National, and probably the biggest name out of them all to be included, Thom Yorke, taking a glitchy but gorgeous turn on the Miracle Legion tune “All For The Best.”
3—You grew up in the 1990s, and watched “The Adventures of Pete and Pete.”
While Miracle Legion were on the verge of breaking up, and working through a bad record deal with Morgan Creek for their one and only ‘major label’ effort, Drenched, the band was approached to be featured in one episode of, and contribute music for, a live-action series on Nickelodeon—“The Adventures of Pete and Pete.”
An eccentric show about two red-haired brothers, both named Pete, the mournful, bittersweet, and nostalgic tone of Mulcahy’s songwriting matched the backdrop of the series perfectly—the songs (some of his best, truthfully)—recorded under the fictionalized moniker Polaris—are as important, if not more so, than the quirky, imaginative, surrealist coming of age story that, in the 20+ years since its final episode aired, has amassed possibly a larger cult following than Mulcahy himself.
Mulcahy issued the soundtrack to the show via his own imprint, Mezzotint, in 1999, and reissued it on vinyl 16 years after that—and his involvement with an idiosyncratic children’s television show is why there is a somewhat large portion of his fan base that weren’t even walking yet, or in some cases, not even born yet, when Miracle Legion first formed.
On almost all of Mark Mulcahy’s solo albums, especially the ones released after his return to music in 2013, there is a ‘moment.’ A song that, tonally, is a little different from the others—a little more pensive, a little more somber or melancholic, with a little gentler of an arrangement.
On Dear Mark J.Mulcahy, I Love You, it’s “The Rabbit.” Perhaps I was drawn to it simply because of its name, or perhaps it was the swooning, swaying way with which Mulcahy performs the song on an acoustic guitar, letting his voice tumble down, almost whimsically at times, over the strums of the string.
On The Possum in The Driveway, his fifth solo album, released in 2017, it’s the album’s closing track—again, swaying in a way that the songs arriving before it did not—what makes “Geraldine” a fascinating song is the inclusion of a saxophone, very lightly brushed percussion keeping time against a rumbling bass line, and a mournful Rhodes piano twinkling in the background.
It also, uncharacteristic of Mulcahy, finds him singing in a higher, though a little reserved, range—something he rarely does.
On The Gus, that moment arrives right out of the gate.
Nobody really writes ‘murder ballads’ anymore, do they? Like, it’s a thing, but they are difficult things to do, and to do well, and not make your audience uncomfortable. D’Angelo, on his debut album, has what is, more or less, a ‘murder ballad,’ in the form of “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker.”
And Nick Cave did release an entire album entitled Murder Ballads, with The Bad Seeds in the early 1990s.
The opening track of The Gus, “Wicked World,” is almost too beautiful to be about what it’s actually about.
Perhaps he’s always been this way—maybe more so on recent efforts—but on The Gus, Mulcahy is just as much of a storyteller in these 10 songs as he is a ‘songwriter.’ Partially inspired by reading George Saunders (a short story writer who released a sprawling, dizzying debut novel, Lincoln in The Bardo, at the beginning of 2017), Mulcahy, himself, is not present in these songs, but rather, he has written short fictions set to music, or at the very least, created characters that sustain themselves throughout the course of a pop song.
It takes a few listens through “Wicked World” to fully grasp what it’s about, and even then, it’s hard to believe that, unfolding across the song’s gorgeous five minutes, is a shifting narrative that winds up to be about a killing spree. A man walking his dog; a woman dashing around the corner to visit the object of her affection; someone nodding off at a bus stop—all of these people, shockingly, wind up dead, as Mulcahy strums a sparse electric guitar, an additional layer of strings arrives to make things even more dramatic, and a surprising guest vocalist—Rain Phoenix (of those Phoenixes)—takes the song’s second verse, adding a real sense of believability to the ‘characters’ Mulcahy has written.
It may not be as personal or emotional as some of the songs he wrote for “Pete and Pete,” or as devastating and heartbroken as “You’re The One, Lee,” from the Miracle Legion album Me and Mr. Ray—but it is imaginative enough, and haunting in its beauty, to linger with you well after you’ve finished listening, and it cements itself among Mulcahy’s finest penned material.
But that’s just the album’s first song—there are still nine others.
The Gus, as a whole, is an uneven listen; that may be due to the nature of its ‘character’ driven songwriting, or that may be because there are uneven moments on other Mark Mulcahy solo albums as well. While it may not be a momentum building opening track—it is one, however, that knocks the wind out of you—“Wicked World” is not indicative of what is to come as the rest of The Gus unfolds, as the pacing, and energy, shifts dramatically from song to song, until the end.
As a songwriter, Mulcahy sometimes, as he’s aged especially, has a difficult time trying to strike the balance between earnestness and whimsy—sometimes he finds it, other times there can be too much of one, and not enough of the other. Usually, there are a few too many whimsical elements in a song. One of The Gus’ first singles, “Taking Baby Steps” suffers from that—the huge, snarling guitar strums that come right at the beginning, and crash down behind Mulcahy during the verses, but there’s something about when the song takes a turn, as he sings the titular phrase—it just doesn’t balance out.
There are other moments, too, throughout, where the whimsy, or focus on humor, detracts from the song—“People: Beware” brings the cringes early when Mulcahy begins pontificating, “Let’s talk about Drugs 101,” and both the reflection on life in Trump’s America of “Mr. Bell,” and the dramatic “A Long Time Ago,” arriving in the latter half of the album, bring its momentum to a screeching halt, simply due to their turgid pacing.
“Happy Boat,” also parked near the album’s conclusion, is among The Gus’s most musically interesting—pulling Mulcahy and his group of players away from the freewheeling, jangly indie rock he’s been synonymous with for his career, and finds a more restrained, borderline ‘adult contemporary’ groove; more surprising than the stylistic direction of the song is that it actually works, and works well.
There’s something very familiar—almost eerily familiar about the way the guitar sounds on “I Won’t Tell Anyone But You,” the song that arrives on The Gus’ halfway point. Mulcahy has always favored guitar effects that only add, or accentuate the jangle to his jangle pop sound—a bulk of the “Pete and Pete” soundtrack is drenched in heavy chorus pedal use, as is his solo debut, Fathering, from 1997.
“I Won’t Tell Anyone But You,” save for the aging you can hear in his voice, sounds like was pulled right out of the mid 1990s, thanks to that wavering shimmer you can hear in the huge strums of Mulcahy’s electric guitar—however, it’s juxtaposed against a fuzzed out, rumbling bass line, and sharp, slithering rhythm from the drums, creating a fascinating dichotomy as Mulcahy, more or less, speak-sings his way through the song’s lyrics.
In it, near the end of the refrain, he sings, “It’s simpler to stick to what you know.”
This line stuck out to me, right away, during my first listen of The Gus, and it’s resonated with each subsequent listen, but now, as this review heads toward a conclusion, I am giving that line thought again because I may be taking it, critically speaking, in two ways.
The most obvious, when hearing something that sneering, set against the artist’s most familiar sound, is to take it as tongue in cheek and self aware—Mulcahy, himself, is sticking to what he knows, in a sense.
But after enough times through The Gus, even with the few outstanding moments I’ve found, the initial charm the album had worn off. Perhaps that comes from listening to specific album, a number of times in a short period of time, for critical analysis rather than enjoyment; or perhaps it comes from the fact that, at the end of the day, The Gus can be a difficult album. It’s not ‘unfriendly’ to the ears, but it, due to its nature, is lacking an easy point of entry, and at times, especially when the pacing slows, or things become too esoteric, keeps its listener at an arm’s length.
It seems such a cheap joke to say Mulcahy should ‘stick to what he knows,’ because he’s done that—he resurrected Miracle Legion for one ‘final’ tour and issued a live album from those shows in 2017; he did the same with Polaris, too, which itself was a bit of an inside joke for the band and long time fans who were aware that Polaris, as a band, had never played live since their inception.
‘Stick to what you know’ implies that experimentation or pushing yourself in a new creative direction is a bad thing, or frowned upon—and that’s not the case. But with The Gus, save for those few captivating moments, is an album that finds Mulcahy’s musical fictions to be ones of diminishing returns.